Film Reviews

 Film reviews are updated on Fridays. This section compiled by Marjorie Baumgarten (M.B.); with reviews by Hollis Chacona (H.C.), Steve Davis (S.D.), Robert Faires (R.F.), Alison Macor (A.M.), Marc Savlov (M.S.), Russell Smith (R.S.).

5 stars As perfect as a movie can be
4 stars Slightly flawed, but excellent nonetheless
3 stars Has its good points, and its bad points
2 stars Mediocre, but with one or two bright spots
1 stars Poor, without any saving graces
0 stars La Bomba



D: Jan Sverak; with Zdenek Sverak, Andrej Chalimon, Irena Livanova, Ondrez Vetchy. (PG-13, 113 min.)
This film from the Czech Republic is bursting with the emotion Saul Bellow calls "potato love": a banal yet irresistible flood of primal human feeling that bypasses the censoring intellect and goes straight to the soul. The plot lacks even a drop of originality - cynical middle-aged bachelor grudgingly assumes custody of cute kid with resulting expansion of his emotional horizons. Yet a warm ocean of pleasure awaits those who believe the heart of a story is the conviction with which it's told. Protagonist Frantisek Louka (Zdenek Sverak, who also wrote the script) is a cranky, sex-obsessed concert cellist whose wiseass personality has gotten him booted from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Louka's now plentiful free time is mainly spent mattress-rodeoing with married women and trying to scrounge enough funeral musician gigs to buy a crummy used car. Desperate for cash, he participates in a scam through which he's paid to marry a young Russian-born woman who needs Czech papers to avoid deportation. But when she skips town to join her boyfriend in France, Louka is left in charge of his "stepson" - five-year-old Kolya (Chalimon). After a period of deep denial, the mortified Louka gradually starts bonding with the tyke, finding unexpected focus and satisfaction in the fatherly rituals of meals, bathing, teaching new words, and explaining away childhood fears. He even draws his astonished mistresses into a makeshift maternal consultancy network, enlarging himself in their esteem even as their sexual relationships fall by the wayside. The tale's resolution, at once heart-warming and -breaking, is undiminished in power by its inevitability. Young Chalimon, one of those rare child actors who seems to effortlessly tap some enchanted spring of performing genius, is a marvel, conveying all the innocence, nascent cunning, and terrifying vulnerability of childhood. His ability to instinctively grasp and define his character's function is as powerful a testament as any to the DNA-deep emotional honesty of the story. Director Jan Sverak (Zdenek's son) works closely with director of photography Vladimir Smutny to place Louka and Kolya inside a sumptuous visual world of rich reds, umbers, and whites and images of centuries-old religious art that symbolically enhance the tale's latent spirituality. The thematic background of the 1989 Velvet Revolution corresponds to the liberation of Louka's soul. Lest this all sound a bit heavy, it should also be noted that Kolya is a funny, sexy, irony-rich film that lavishly bestows that rarest gift of Eastern European cinema: fun. A star-making performance by the droll, owlish elder Sverak and a fine cast that works together like a single-minded organism add further strength to a movie that fully deserves its Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. Originality, it would seem, is one of the more overrated dramatic virtues. (2/28/97)

3.5 stars (R.S.)


New Review


D: Jeff Pollack; with Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, Vivica A. Fox, Tamala Jones. (R, 79 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. When his girlfriend's dog destroys Rushon's only condom, he's forced into the streets of Chinatown on all-night search for a replacement. This comic misadventure re-teams In Living Color alums Jamie Foxx (Rushon) and Tommy Davidson (Bunz) who learn from their gal pals that "no glove means no love." It's the second feature film for director Pollack (Above the Rim), who was the co-creator and executive producer of the TV sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air. ()


Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Westgate


D: Jon Sherman; with Susan Floyd, Dan Futterman, Nadia Dajani, Saverio Guerra, David Thornton. (Not Rated, 90 min.)
"This whole thing should be easier, shouldn't it?" moans Kathy (Floyd) in Jon Sherman's first feature Breathing Room, a film about the difficulties of modern romantic relationships. "This whole thing" that Kathy refers to is her two-year relationship with David (Futterman). Caught in a cycle of breaking up and making up, David and Kathy decide to take a breather when polite Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation with Kathy's strait-laced cousins reveals that David has applied to teach English in Vietnam. Unfortunately, David has neglected to tell Kathy of his plans. Set amidst the frenetic and intoxicating Christmas season in Manhattan, Breathing Room captures well the holiday festivity and folly of the city. Equally effective are the film's leads in conveying the explosive potential that results when the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the holidays collides with romantic commitments. Kathy and David could be your friends, your siblings - perhaps they're even closer to home. Floyd (a former One Life to Live cast member) and Futterman (Robin Williams' son in The Birdcage) have the kind of chemistry that relies on more than simple passion; they're quite believable as a loving couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Should David go to Vietnam and accept a full-time position as a coordinator of an educational English program, effectively promoting himself from the part-time English class he currently teaches? And should Kathy concentrate more on her work as a commercial animator and hold out for a partner who can say "I love you" in English rather than in 15 different foreign languages? Breathing Room attempts to answer these questions as it chronicles the self-imposed breather taken by Kathy and David. Despite the effective chemistry between the film's main actors, scenes occasionally appear awkward and stiff. Tom Hughes and Sherman's script lurches along in spots when not helped out by Floyd and Futterman. The film works best when it focuses on Kathy and David rather than the interactions between Kathy and her somewhat cheesy boss Brian (Thornton) or between David and his slow-witted roommate Tony (Guerra). Like all relationships, Kathy and David's has its passionate highs and miserable lows. And, like most relationship films, Breathing Room has its ups and its downs as well. The secret to the success of relationships and the films about them is finding the right combination of both. (See related story in this issue's "Screens" section.) (2/28/97)

2.5 stars (A.M.)

Texas Union


D: Darrell James Roodt; with Ice Cube, Elizabeth Hurley, Sechaba Morojele, Eric Miyeni, Ving Rhames. (R, 92 min.)
Gangsta rapper Cube, who again proves that he's not just a wannabe crossover when it comes to his acting (John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood is still his best performance), completely fumbles the ball in this new film from the director of Sarafina! and Cry, The Beloved Country. I tend to blame this on Brit supermodel-cum-actress-cum-Hugh Grant apologist Elizabeth Hurley, who performs in Dangerous Ground like a cross between a newborn colt and an unmanned Muppet. Cube, for his part, does an admirable impersonation of Mickey Rourke sans Zoloft, but it neither fits his character or the exasperating, preachy script by Roodt and Greg Latter. Vusi (Cube) is a young South African expatriate raised in South Central L.A. who is called back to his homeland to attend the funeral of his father. He arrives at the remote village of his birth in a rented BMW and a cloud of dust, and proceeds to annoy his brother Ernest (Morojele) when he refuses to perform the traditional ceremonial rite of slaughtering an ox. Despite the color of his skin, Vusi is less African than American. While Ernest rails on about "the struggle," all that Vusi wants is to return to Los Angeles, continue his education, and resume his plush, upwardly mobile lifestyle. Fate intervenes in the form of his youngest brother Steven (Miyeni), who is missing and hasn't been heard from for months. Vusi's search for his sibling leads him into Johannesburg's post-apartheid underground, a seamy world of cocaine and carjackings that rivals anything in South Central. Here he meets Karin (Hurley), Steven's leggy, crack-addled girlfriend, and together they go up against the drug lord Muki (Rhames), whose chief pleasure in life appears to be sucking raw chicken feet while discussing soccer strategy. Roodt's two previous films dealt passionately with pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, and it's obvious that he's trying to reach out to a younger, hipper audience with Dangerous Ground. Combining 16mm black-and-white and 35mm color footage with slapdash, rapid-fire editing, Dangerous Ground struggles gamely toward the nadir of "cool," and fails miserably, bogging itself down in woefully ludicrous characterizations and unintentionally silly sanctimony. The truisms here are as unsubtly painful as a truncheon in the face, and both Cube and Rhames overact with gleeful abandon (although Cube's unrestrained thespianism continues to be of the "glower and sulk" variety). Roodt's film is a world civics lesson for the MTV generation: all style, bombast, and flash, with precious little substance or restraint. It's all over the map without going anywhere in particular. (2/28/97)

1.0 stars (M.S.)

Highland, Riverside, Westgate


D: Mike Newell; with Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Anne Heche. (R, 127 min.)
Not reviewed at press time. We keep thinking that we're moving away from these mafia stories but we find they just keep pulling us back in. In Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino plays a mob veteran who mentors a young associate played by Johnny Depp - who turns out to be an FBI infiltrator - in this based-on-a-true-story gangland tale penned by TV's Homicide creator Paul Attanasio and directed by Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral). ()


Arbor, Barton Creek, Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside


D: David Lynch; with Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Henry Rollins, Bathazar Getty, Gary Busey, Robert Loggia, Richard Pryor. (R, 135 min.)
Enigmatic even by Lynchian standards, the storyline of Lost Highway was perhaps best summed up by Lynch himself on a recent segment of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After effusing briefly about Robert Blake's clip, Leno queried the director about the film's plot, to which Lynch replied: "It's about [long pause]... a man in trouble." Very succinct, maddeningly vague, but also quite accurate. What better way to describe this complex, wildly frustrating journey into the Lynch's tortured, oddly prosaic film psyche? Like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway deals with the everyday turned upside-down, or rather, gutted, and then pulled inside-out. Normalcy is a fraud, and nothing is quite what it seems, although fans of Lynch's Lumberton and Twin Peaks sagas will find themselves stymied in the nameless, Los Angelesean desert suburbia of Lost Highway. Now more than ever, nothing makes much sense. Fred Madison (Pullman) is a tenor saxman. By night, he blows his horn at the local club; by day, he hangs out with his wife Renee (Arquette), a Betty Page doppelganger. When the couple begins receiving mysterious videotapes on their front porch - tapes apparently made inside their home, while they were sleeping - the police are called. They offer little comfort, though, and Fred begins to suspect his wife is having an affair. Things take a sidestep into the awful when Renee is viciously murdered, and her husband is found guilty of the crime. Incarcerated for a crime he may or may not have committed, Fred waits out his days in lockup until, without explanation, he literally vanishes, and in his place is found Pete Dayton (Getty), a young auto mechanic who inexplicably appears in Fred's cell. Things get stranger from here on out, and considering the elliptical, highly subjective nature of Lynch's film, there's no point in giving anything else away. Suffice to say Fred and Pete's lives are commingled, with Renee at the center. Lynch, who penned the screenplay with novelist Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), seems to be attempting to capture not just a sense of place and time (it never works - Lost Highway is wholly, irrevocably, out of place and without any linear time or time line to speak of), but also a sense of madness. Is Fred insane? Is Pete insane? Who killed Renee (and is she even dead to begin with)? Cocky auteur that he is, Lynch provides the audience with an abundance of clues, but no solid answers. What he does provide is a deliciously delirious descent into his own mental mise-en-scene: It may not appear to make any sense, but, my god, it looks good. Lost Highway pushes the envelope of sight and sound, and merges these two most important elements of film into a hallucinatory orgy. Angelo Badalamenti's score is wondrously arcane, and Lynch's choice of soundtrack recordings perfectly echoes the spiraling sense of onscreen disorientation, from Trent Reznor's eerie soundscapes to Lou Reed's ominously carefree "This Magic Moment." Couple that with Peter Deming's dank, spare lighting and camerawork, and you've got Lynch/Kafka overkill. With a running time of 135 minutes, Lost Highway could have stood some final trimming - some passages seem to go on endlessly, pointlessly - but you get the feeling the director just likes to make you squirm. Confounding and disconcerting, Lost Highway is David Lynch consciously attempting to outdo himself. He does, gloriously, and in doing so loses the rest of us in the process. (See related story in this issue's "Screens" section.) (2/28/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)


Marvin's Room stars best actress Oscar nominee Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio (pictured above), Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro


D: Jerry Zaks; with Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon, Hal Scardino, Dan Hedaya. (PG-13, 103 min.)
Marvin's Room creates a captivating actors' showcase from one of the oldest narrative hooks in the business: two sisters, different as night and day. The plot is a melodramatic tale with a lesson to impart and lots of good humor to sweeten the load. Sisters Bessie (Keaton) and Lee (Streep) haven't seen each other in the 20 years since the independent-minded Lee left their Florida home and built a new life in Ohio. Bessie remained at home where she has devoted the years to taking care of her bedridden father and his eccentric sister, but when she is diagnosed with leukemia her only chance for survival is a marrow transfusion from a blood relative. The life-or-death matter is what prompts the sisters to reunite and, in spite of their awkward distance and personality disparities, their time together becomes a lesson in the strange geometry of selfless love through which the more you give, the more you get. Originally performed on the stage, playwright Scott McPherson adapted Marvin's Room for the screen and completed the task shortly before his death from AIDS in 1992. One need not scratch Marvin's Room too deeply before finding the AIDS-crisis subtext embedded in the story's messages about self-sacrifice and the emotional rewards to be found in caring for others and the power of a life-threatening disease to rally the dormant forces of love and compassion. So important were these to McPherson that the script has a tendency to overstate the obvious, having characters directly enunciate the movie's messages in lines of dialogue. Yet the central performances by Streep, Keaton, and DiCaprio are so engaging, and so human, that they allow you forget the story's social mission and forgive the overall staginess of award-winning Broadway director Jerry Zaks' first screen effort. Keaton, who won an Oscar nomination for her work in Marvin's Room, plays against her stereotyped image here, abandoning her usual quirky, tentative disjointedness in favor of a more solid, self-assured delivery. Streep brings a refreshing honesty to her portrayal of the "bad" sister - a woman who, in her roles as a daughter, mother, and sister, has always placed her own needs above those of others and is now, for the first time in her life, questioning the selfishness of her ways. DiCaprio, once more, proves that he is one of the best young actors at work today in this role that takes him from sullen sociopath to incipient family participant. The kookiness that we usually expect from Keaton comes instead in Marvin's Room from De Niro's absent-minded Dr. Wally, his odd office assistant/brother (Hedaya), and Verdon's daffy Aunt Ruth. Their broad eccentricities are, no doubt, intended to ward off the story's more serious moments, yet there is more than enough comedy in the story's melodramatic scenes to make these "comic relief" characters unnecessary. Marvin's Room is one of those kinds of movies that has something for everyone - you laugh, you cry, you marvel, you groan - and you get to exit the theatre through the same doors you came in. (2/28/97)

3.0 stars (M.B.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Movies 12, Roundrock


D: Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. (Not Rated, 88 min.)
In 1990, Jeanne Jordan's parents, Russel and Mary Jane, called their daughter in Boston to say that they were getting out of farming and giving up the Iowa land that members of the Jordan family had worked for the last 125 years. The American farm crisis had suddenly come home. The bank was calling in the Jordan debt which had been steadily spiraling out of control for years. Their fate was little different than that of farmers all throughout the Midwest, but in this case, it so happened that Jeanne Jordan and her husband Steven Ascher were noted documentary filmmakers who decided to come to Iowa and make a record of the whole affair. The result is a very personal portrait of a situation that is more commonly discussed in dry economic or agricultural terms. Narrated by Jeanne Jordan and shot by Steven Ascher, material for the film was gathered in intervals over the course of a tumultuous year. We come to know the Jordan family - all the brothers and sisters and their families, each of whom (except Jeanne) still lives in Iowa, although there's only remaining farmer by movie's end. Much to everyone's surprise, it's Russel and Mary Jane who concoct the bold plan to keep the farm in family hands. The couple, now in their seventies, would auction off everything they owned and move to a house in town, hopefully earn enough to retire their debt and turn the farm over to their son, Jim. What the film captures is the intimate drama of a family blown ragged by the winds of change. The movie is structured to climax with the auction, yet as we watch the family liquidate everything but its most treasured mementos and bare essentials, the result is anything but carthartic and conclusive. Always enchanted by the mythology of Westerns, Jeanne Jordan shapes the narrative as a modern Midwestern version of the gunslingers' showdown at high noon. At times, the movie stretches the Western metaphor a little further than is comfortable. And it could be argued that a bit of social and political insight into the plight of the American farmer might have enriched our comprehension of this intensely personal family saga. Yet it's clear that the filmmakers have hit upon a most successful strategy for relating their tale. Troublesome Creek won both the grand jury and audience documentary awards at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and the film has just been nominated for a best documentary Oscar. (2/28/97)

3.0 stars (M.B.)



D: Stephen Kessler; with Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Wallace Shawn. (PG, 91 min.)
Only the inexorable thickening of Chevy Chase's jowls and torso confirms that eight years have passed since National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, the previous installment in the Griswold family's globetrotting chronicles. But as with other infrequent yet memorable experiences - e.g., flare-ups of pinkeye - we're set for another go-'round after what seems like mere months. This time, Clark and Ellen (Chase and D'Angelo) and teenagers Rusty and Audrey are headed to Vegas for what Clark bills as a chance for filial bonding and a renewal of Mom and Dad's wedding vows. Neither, of course, works out - at least not in the way the perpetually bumfuzzled Griswold imagined. True to original creator John Hughes' vision, Clark remains a sort of id-enhanced Dagwood Bumstead. Torn between paternal benevolence and dark (maybe dim is a better word) tendencies toward obsessive behavior, he finds himself sucked into a ruinous binge of high stakes gambling, egged on by a malevolent blackjack dealer (Shawn). Meanwhile, neglected Ellen is getting bird-dogged by a lovestruck Wayne Newton (played with self-mocking gusto by the man himself) and the kids are going feral in the desert Babylon's demimonde of strip clubs and swinging mafiosi. Adding to the chaos is the looming presence of Ellen's mangy, Snopesian white-trash cousin (Quaid). As usual, though, Chase is the focal point. His genuine flair for physical slapstick is always good for a few grudging yuks, and the loss of his Ken-doll looks actually works to his advantage as his doughy face acquires the violently hypertensive flush of Rodney Dangerfield. D'Angelo is solid as Chase's perpetual straightwoman and Sid Caesar adds an enjoyably hammy cameo toward the end. Though the Las Vegas setting has long been drained of any potential for fresh comedic inspiration, the Griswolds' new misadventures retain the unpretentious charm, gonzo energy, and sophomoric wit that have been present in this series from the get-go. This ain't Nichols and May; on that we can all agree. But if you enjoy an occasional taste of mental junk food, you might find Las Vegas Vacation worthy of a springtime dollar-cinema visit. Otherwise, hold out another decade for sexagenarian Chevy in Palm Springs Vacation. (2/28/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

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

Still Playing


D: Clint Eastwood; with Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Scott Glenn, Dennis Haysbert, Judy Davis, E.G. Marshall, Melora Hardin. (R, 121 min.)
Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, an aging, solitary, master cat burglar who is interrupted one night while looting the home of billionaire philanthropist Walter Sullivan. Secreted (and trapped) behind a one-way mirror in the bedroom, Whitney witnesses the brutal murder of Sullivan's young wife Christy (Hardin) by her drunken, abusive lover and a trio of gun-toting assassins. The catch? The killers are U.S. Secret Service agents and her violent, drunken swain is the president of the United States, Alan Richmond (Hackman). Whitney manages to make his way out of the mansion before he can be caught, but for safety's sake he grabs a crucial piece of evidence - a bloodied letter opener with both Christy's and the president's fingerprints on the hilt - and takes it with him as a possible bargaining tool. As the Secret Service prepares a cover-up of the whole incident - led by presidential chief of staff Gloria Russell (Davis) - Whitney finds himself pursued not only by overzealous, trigger-happy Secret Service agents, but also by Washington detective Seth Frank (Harris), who sifts through Whitney's past and comes up with his estranged daughter, Kate (Linney), and inadvertently puts her in jeopardy as well. Adapted by William Goldman from David Baldacci's bestseller, Eastwood's Whitney is another brilliant character study that can now be added to his perpetual canon. Grizzled and quiet, Whitney wants nothing more than to be left alone to pursue his two hobbies: theft and painting. Eastwood himself is looking somewhat long in the tooth these days; unsurprisingly, that only adds to his subtly nuanced charm. Absolute Power is a fairly predictable film, however, despite Eastwood's best intentions. He makes clever use of Whitney's predilection for disguise and subterfuge, but from the moment the murder is committed, it's no secret the truth will eventually come out. Harris, likewise, offers little new here, playing the aw-shucks detective with more than a dose of his previous good-guy roles thrown in. It's Hackman, as the thoroughly unctuous First Freak into rough sex and betrayal, and Davis, as the cool, witchy chief of staff, who steal the show here. Hardly a misstep on Eastwood's part, Absolute Power instead relies too heavily on past thriller archetypes, baiting the viewer with obvious references and tired clichˇs. (2/14/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Barton Creek, Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Ken Kwapis; with Fran Drescher, Timothy Dalton, Lids Jakub, Ian McNiece, Patrick Malahide. (PG, 107 min.)
A key premise of this comedic love-child of The King and I and Evita is that "big career break" is a relative term defined by where you're starting from. For lowly beauty-school instructor Judy Miller (Drescher), it's a stranger's invitation to move to a tiny Eastern European police state and tutor the children of fearsome dictator Boris "The Beast" Pochenko (Dalton). If this move up means prolonging your employers' misconceptions about what you teach (they think it deals with hard sciences not hair extensions), then so be it. And who knows what might happen when a cute, eligible Jersey girl finds herself in the thrillingly butch milieu of jackbooted secret police, looming Stalin-era statuary, and gloomy castles draped with crypto-Nazi, red-and-black banners. Can romance be far behind? This latest vehicle for the star of TV's The Nanny certainly can't be accused of picking an obvious setting for the comedic skills of the brassy-mouthed, American-as-mustard-pretzels Drescher. Even less expected is the decision by screenwriter Todd Graff (Used People, Fly by Night) to develop this screwy concept into the aforementioned homage to The King and I, in classic Kerr-Brynner fashion, Judy and Boris butt heads early as she introduces the Pochenko brood to Romeo and Juliet via tapes of West Side Story, but before long she's melting his icy heart with her earthy humor, common sense advice, and tight Capri pants. When the pair's animosity starts giving way to amore, you almost expect them to break into a duet of "Getting to Know You." This is just a strange, disorienting film all the way around. The story often feigns serious interest in its weightier political elements (odd enough for a comedy), then casually flips them aside like peanut shells. For example, when Judy tries to wheedle the strongman into freeing a student activist his daughter is dating, the main result is not a triumph of justice but a bonding experience between herself and the daughter. As with so many recent Hollywood comedies, The Beautician and the Beast crackles with fitful bursts of real wit and good comic acting (Dalton is especially enjoyable) that only heighten the frustration when the plot takes bizarre, nonsensical turns and crucial payoff scenes are market-pandering clichˇs. In a way, mediocrities like this are more galling than straightforwardly brain-dead movies of the Beverly Hills Ninja ilk. Viewers need to start demanding better. Otherwise, we'll continue to see comedies that favor one-liners and high concept over outmoded verities like character and plausible story development. Give this Beast a wide berth. (2/7/97)

2.0 stars (R.S.)

Barton Creek, Lakeline, Movies 12


D: Roger Donaldson; with Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Charles Hallahan, Grant Heslov, Elizabeth Hoffman, Jeremy Foley, Jamie Renee Smith. (PG-13, 108 min.)
Jaws with a bigger shark. Well, not entirely, but this pyroclastic disaster flick frequently raises the comparison, especially in the film's earlier scenes. The small, tourist-supported town of Dante's Peak, near Washington's Northern Cascades, is gearing up for its annual Pioneer Days festival, and readying itself for a new influx of out-of-towners to arrive when the dormant volcano that looms over the community begins to make ominous rumblings. Harry Dalton (Brosnan), a volcanologist from the U.S. Geological Survey arrives in town to check the situation and quickly determines that the slumbering giant is indeed waking up, and everyone within a 10-mile radius is in grave danger. What with the incoming tourist trade, however, this isn't what the town elders want to hear, and so Dalton's warnings go unheeded until the mountain finally, literally, blows its top. Throw in Hamilton as the town's leggy, divorced mayor Rachel Wando, her two kids (Foley and Smith) and crotchety mother-in-law Ruth (Hoffman), and you've got a character-heavy disaster movie that would make Irwin Allen proud. The early Jaws allusions (dim-witted selectmen, young lovers as early victims, festival seating at a natural disaster, and others) don't distract from the real show here, which, of course, is the mountain's final, catastrophic eruption. In a cinematic decade marked by Things That Go Bang, Dante's Peak puts its money where its effects are and goes it one better: Not only do we get the volcano's explosive disgorgement, but also floods, earthquakes, lakes of acid, fire, and even brimstone in the form of toxic sulphur dioxide emissions. The only things missing are the locusts. It seems almost beside the point to bring up the notion of plotting and characterization in such an effects-driven film - nobody's going to rush out to catch Dante's Peak on account of the Shakespearean-calibre thespians involved. Nevertheless, both Remington Steele and "that Terminator chick" (as the guy in front of me referred to Hamilton) acquit themselves admirably despite some woefully ponderous dialogue and the ludicrous notion that four-wheel-drive trucks can navigate lava flows on rims alone. Right. Take this behemoth for what it is (a big, dumb summer blockbuster released a tad early) and you won't be let down. And if you are, well geez, Volcano's opening soon anyway. (2/14/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Irvin Kershner; with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse. (PG, 127 min.)
Part Two of Lucasfilm's Star Wars: Special Edition (Chapter V in the ongoing project, actually) is a faster, meaner riff on the original, retrieving the principal characters from the cookie-cutter clichˇ factory of the original and fleshing out the relationships between Vader and Luke, Leia and Han, and so on. It's been called the best of the series, and for good reason: Whereas Star Wars was a near-plotless smorgasbord of Gosh-Wow! special effects, director Kershner and guiding light Lucas have broadened the scope of the tale to include our first intimations of the Emperor and his nefarious schemes, Han Solo's ongoing struggle to look good while trying to keep his neck attached to his body, the introduction of the bounty hunter Boba Fett, and perhaps most importantly, young Luke Skywalker's ongoing training as a Jedi Knight. I seemed to remember the wizened Jedi master Yoda as a olive-drab blob of a puppet, all creaky movement and rustling rubber. The Special Edition proves me wrong, though: Jim Henson's Creature Shop did a marvelous, fully-realized job on this most important of the Star Wars critters. With the phlegmatic rattle of voice artist and longtime Henson collaborator Oz in place, Yoda fits nearly seamlessly into the swamps of Dagobah (although at times he does sound a bit too much like a drunken Fozzie Bear). Empire is also a far darker film that its predecessor, and not just in terms of cinematography. Granted, much of the picture takes place in inhospitable climes - the icy netherworld of Hoth, with those incredible scenes (now beefed up thanks to ILM) of the Imperial ATATs, the lushly rotting swamps of the aforementioned Dagobah, and the dark and brooding interiors of Lando Calrissian's Cloud City - but The Empire Strikes Back also benefits from a certain dolorousness of the spirit. Luke loses his right hand, gains a bad dad extraordinaire, and is taunted by the dark side, while luckless flyboy Solo finally gets a shot at the Princess, only to be betrayed by his old friend Lando, carbon-frozen, and then kidnapped by the mysterious Fett. It's almost as if Lucas had called in angst-ridden tunesmith Morrissey for rewrites. Even more than its grand predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back is filled with spectacular dogfights, awe-inspiring shots of the Imperial Fleet blundering about in deep space, and the climactic, wrenching meeting of father and son (not to mention the Special Edition's glorious use of THX and a few, brief additional scenes). Still brilliant. (2/21/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock


D: Anthony Minghella; with Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth, Julian Wadham. (R, 162 min.)
Based on the Booker Award-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient is a lush, sprawling epic about romantic betrayal and redemption set against the backdrop of North Africa and Italy before and during World War II. At just under three hours, there's plenty of sandblown eroticism to go around, but, comfortingly, director Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) never lets the film (or the audience) get bogged down in panoramic crane shots and gorgeous sunsets. Fiennes is uncanny as the titular patient, a man who is found beside the wreckage of his plane in the gritty dunes of Northern Africa. Burned beyond recognition and with no memory of his name or existence before the crash, he is found and cared for by a group of nomads who eventually place him in the hands of Hana (Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse with some grievous emotional scars of her own. At this point in The English Patient's decidedly non-linear story line, the war is just ending, and Hana moves her disfigured charge into an abandoned monastery in Tuscany, where she can care for the mysterious man and nurse her own wounds in solitude. Into this picture wanders Caravaggio (Dafoe), a Canadian soldier who says he's been recruited to help disarm the local partisans. The truth of his arrival appears to be a bit more shady; he stares at the English patient for long periods, picking away at his faulty memory as if it were as easy to peel away as the countless layers of scar tissue that surround the man. Concurrent with this Tuscan interlude is the film's backstory, seen in flashbacks, which chronicles the forbidden love between a brilliant, solitary royal cartographer working in North Africa (Fiennes, sans makeup) and the wife of another member of the Royal Cartographic team (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Gradually, Minghella draws these seemingly unrelated strands together into a skein of bitter loss and hopeful redemption. Any synopsis will fail to do this magnificently complex film justice, and repeated viewings may well be in order - it's simply that emotionally resonant. Suffice to say, The English Patient is operating on any number of levels throughout. Subtextually, the film is like some enormous cinematic onion, ripe with the promise of hidden meaning for anyone who cares to look. Films this rewarding are rare enough these days. Films this rewarding with casts this good have, in recent years, been more or less the sole property of the Merchant-Ivory conglomerate. The entire cast is electrifying, with Fiennes guaranteed a nod (at the very least) come Oscar time. His Count de Alm‡sy is a rich, eminently watchable creation, and Binoche, Dafoe, and Scott Thomas match his prowess every horrifically romantic step of the way. Despite its lengthy running time and occasionally languid pace, The English Patient feels brief and dreamlike. Waking from its spell, you touch your face, and it's wet, but you're smiling anyway. (11/22/96)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Highland, Lake Creek


D: Alan Parker; with Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, Jimmy Nail. (PG, 135 min.)
That Madonna... she's voguing again. This time she strikes a pose as Eva Peron, the cultishly worshipped former first lady of Argentina and, not incidentally, the eponymous star of a fabulously successful stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It's perfect material for the Material Girl and it's easy to see why she fought so hard for the part. The resemblances between the lives of these two women - each of whom rose from obscurity to become a mesmeric one-name wonder - should be evident to even the laziest of armchair analysts. And clearly, that's the audience toward whom this film version of Evita is aimed. It's the "no muss, no fuss" historical approach toward the military dictator and his popularly adored wife, an approach that skims and ignores many of the tale's darker elements (such as the perverse years-long saga of Evita's embalmed yet unburied corpse). Experiencing Evita is like watching one uninterrupted long-form music video divided only by different arias or costume changes (of which there are untold numbers). The movie is a wall of musical sound, an unending barrage of sung exposition. Madonna and Antonio Banderas, who serves as the story's Brechtian narrator Che, perform the difficult, near-tuneless Lloyd Webber music nicely enough, although their vocal skills tilt more toward the adequate than the spectacular realm. The music itself is full of Lloyd Webber's typical bombast and grandiosity and director Alan Parker's visual style maintains the tone of the aural onslaught. Visually, Evita is also huge. Yet, for all the teeming crowd scenes and sweeping visual pastiches, the movie still feel bereft of substance and weight. Parker has a substantial history with musicals having helmed the kiddie gangster movie Bugsy Malone, the high school song-and-dance ditty Fame, the sweet, Irish rock band saga The Commitments, and the overblown rock opera Pink Floyd - The Wall. He now probably qualifies as the world's premiere living director of movie musicals and that may be equivalent to saying that the movie musical is thoroughly dead. There is little about Evita that will leave audiences wanting more. (1/10/97)

2.0 stars (M.B.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Andy Tennant; with Matthew Perry, Salma Hayek, Jon Tenney, Carlos Gomez, Tomas Milian, Siobhan Fallon, John Bennett Perry, Jill Clayburgh, Anne Betancourt. (PG-13, 109 min.)
Boy meets girl. Boy shtups girl. Girl gets pregnant. Boy and girl get married. Boy and girl experience multiple cross-cultural and racial difficulties and must adapt to each other's deep-seated insecurities and long-term goals though a series of humorous and occasionally touching misunderstandings and familial outbursts. So goes Fools Rush In, the kind of film that elicits such Michael Medvedian adjectives as "light," "frothy," and "sweet," but nevertheless manages to rise above the treacle and present an interesting if not entirely original look at impulsive love from an Anglo/Latina viewpoint. Perry (Chandler of TV's Friends) plays Alex Whitman, a New York corporate architect who finds himself in Las Vegas one day, overseeing the construction of a Hard Rock Cafe-like nightclub, along with his partner Jeff (Tenney). While dining at a Mexican restaurant, he bumps into the gorgeous Isabel Fuentes (Hayek), the two hit it off, and coitus ensues. After an absence of three months, Isabel shows up at Alex's house to inform him that she's pregnant, she's keeping the baby, and would he please accompany her to her parents' house to meet the relatives, if only to lessen the shock of the soon-to-be-obvious. He does, and although he's at first taken aback by the cultural differences inherent in the Latino family structure, he's also very impressed by the obvious love and affection there. Later that same night, smitten, he suggests immediate marriage, Las Vegas-style, and, under the watchful gaze of the King, the knot is tied. Much of the film's humor comes from the striking contrast between the couple's parents. Alex's WASPy, racist-lite folks (Perry and a hilarious Clayburgh) are of the Hamptons/country club set right down to their Topsiders, while Isabel's deeply religious mother and father (Betancourt and Milian) are aghast that their only daughter has forsaken her childhood sweetheart in favor of this New York gringo. Many of the jokes are broad, but few if any could be called offensive, a trap into which so many "comedies" of this ilk unnecessarily fall. Perry's transition to the big screen is unremarkable - he's playing Chandler with an edge, but the film fairly lights up every time the radiant Hayek (late of Robert Rodriguez's Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn) is onscreen. She has the luminous, wide-eyed insouciance of a classic Hollywood starlet, and the film practically rests on her shoulders. Neither too pedantic nor too airy to complain about, Fool's Rush In is instead a fluffy bit of Valentine's amore: Love 101 for the frantically muddled. (2/14/97)

2.5 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln, Movies 12, Riverside


D: Kenneth Branagh; with Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Kate Winslet. (PG-13, 238 min.)
The man we can pretty much thank for the movies' current "Bard Wars" - actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who set off this frenzy of Shakespeare on film with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing - wades back into the fray swinging the Big One, the saga of the melancholy Dane, and at first glance he looks to be trying to trounce the competition just by using the biggest sword. I mean, everything about this film is big. Big script. Big names. Big screen format. Big running time. Big sets. Big crowd scenes. And, yes, some mighty big acting. But the more you watch, the more it seems that Branagh is following in the footsteps of the century's other great Shakespearean cinematizers, Olivier and Orson; he's trying for the grand gesture, the bold stroke, that conveys the epic quality of Shakespeare's writing. It doesn't always serve Branagh well - some of his more fiery orations come off as mere ranting, and a few of his spectacular set pieces reek of a self-indulgent "watch me work" quality, and do we really need Gerard Depardieu sitting in a chair smoking a cigar and saying "Yes, m'lord" a half-dozen times? - but much more often than not, Branagh's bigness connects with the text in a big way and gives us astonishing visuals, passionate performances, a daring, sweeping, living version of this dramatic masterwork. Part of Branagh's genius is providing contexts for Shakespeare's characters into which modern viewers can key. When he has Hamlet retreat into a library and lean against a wall, his body outlined by hundreds of volumes, the sense of Hamlet as a private man and one who takes comfort in knowledge and books, strikes home in us, in a way that all his talk of Wittenburg may not. Here, he endeavors to provide us with a context for the whole of Hamlet's world - Denmark as a political entity, Hamlet and Claudius as public figures whose actions are watched closely by the Danish people, the characters as people of faith - all of which draws us closer to the prince and makes us feel his tragedy more keenly. Although the film's scope is broad, it retains a tight focus on the war between Hamlet and his stepfather Claudius, the murderer of his true father. Branagh sets up a dynamic tension between himself and Derek Jacobi that wrenches the screen. Jacobi is a wonder, sounding all the notes in the complex Claudius - his ardor, his frustration, his fear, even his horror at his own crime. It's the performance of a titan. Few members of the cast here match his majesty, but most bring rich feeling to the project, particularly Christie as Gertrude, Winslet as Ophelia, and Sewell as Laertes. And some of the Hollywood casting is surprisingly good, notably Charlton Heston, as an aged actor, and Robin Williams as the foppish servant Osric. In fact, it may be Osric who best sums up Branagh's Hamlet: "A hit. A very palpable hit." (1/24/97)

4.0 stars (R.F.)



D: Craig Rosenberg; with Aden Young, Saffron Burrows, Simon Bossell, Pippa Grandison, Ray Barrett, Julia Blake, Peter O'Brien. (PG, 89 min.)
For some inexplicable reason, Hotel de Love missed a Valentine's Day opening and quite possibly just the right kind of holiday audience that would have appreciated this quirky, slightly out-of-control, romantic comedy. Marking the feature film debut of writer-director Craig Rosenberg, Hotel de Love actually is based on some of the tales told to him by an embittered manager of a honeymoon hotel in Niagara Falls. In the film, twin college-aged brothers Rick (Young, who appeared in Black Robe) and Stephen (Bossell) both fall for Melissa (Burrows, last seen in Circle of Friends), but it is the more suave and quick-thinking Rick who wins her affections. Despite a declaration of undying love, they drift apart due to separation and the ravages of youth. Fast forward 10 years later. Rick has become the cynical manager of a kitschy, fantasy theme, honeymoon hotel called the Hotel de Love. Stephen is just as awkward as he was 10 years earlier, but now he is a successful stockbroker cultivating an unrewarding personal life. When fate brings Melissa and her current boyfriend Norman (O'Brien) to the Hotel de Love, Rick and Stephen are forced to confront their past mistakes and their present unfulfilling lives. Set amidst the completely hilarious theme rooms of the hotel, this romantic comedy invests heavily in hope and the power of love at first sight. For this reason, it makes the perfect valentine: magical, sugary, and even a bit clever. But its winsome ways and quirkiness become tiresome, as do Stephen's twitchy mannerisms and even Rick's good looks. Hotel de Love has its moments, such as the football-themed honeymoon suite that Rick and Stephen's parents check into so that they can rejuvenate their crumbling marriage. But, for me, the film's wackiness cannot withstand its running time. Some of the gags seem a bit too labored, and by the time the rather charming ending unfolds, these weaker moments in Hotel de Love may force some viewers to check out early. (2/21/97)

2.0 stars (A.M.)



D: Richard Attenborough; with Sandra Bullock, Chris O'Donnell, Mackenzie Astin, Emilio Bonucci. (PG-13, 116 min.)
It seems like some kind of cruel joke that a lot of movies lately are based on books through which I struggled in high school. Suddenly, the mysteries of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet unfold before me at the Highland 10; where was this movie when I was muddling through the play during the hell of high school? I had a similar experience watching this new film by Richard Attenborough (Chaplin) about the early love life of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway immortalized that time in A Farewell to Arms, another of my required, somewhat impenetrable high school texts. Attenborough's film, however, is based on the book Hemingway in Love and War, by Hemingway's friend and fellow WWI compatriot Henry Villard and details Hemingway's first - some say his only - love, with American Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. Unfortunately for me, watching In Love and War did not open my mind to the nuances of first love that I had been too dense to understand in high school. Instead, Attenborough's film seems to struggle under the combined weight of spark-less chemistry between leads Bullock and O'Donnell and the tendency of the director toward sweeping epic strokes, even when the moments might best be played out quietly. In 1918 Italy, a brash 19-year-old American reporter named Ernest (O'Donnell) reports for duty as a kind of cheerleader-cum-soldier to boost the morale of the Italians, who are trying to stave off a final demolition by the Austrian troops. At the same time, another American arrives in Italy, a nurse who has come to Europe to improve her skills and flee an overzealous suitor. When young Ernie is shot in the leg during his first visit to the front, he finds himself under Aggie's care. Thanks to her knowledge of progressive medical techniques, he recovers nicely and finds himself falling for her despite their age difference. Being the older of the two, Aggie is more cautious, yet ultimately she too admits to tender feelings. There are some sweet moments here, but they're few and far between. O'Donnell's fresh-faced acting and general overeagerness (granted, a trait that young Hemingway apparently had in spades) become irritating. My sympathies lie with Agnes and her painful decisions; the character of Hemingway becomes an afterthought and not just because he gets less screen time. The film begins with Agnes' voice-over, which suggests this will be her story, but the script never seems to make up its mind on that point. This unevenness and the lackluster romantic energy between Bullock and O'Donnell made In Love and War more of a homework assignment than an enjoyable moviegoing experience. (1/24/97)

1.5 stars (A.M.)



D: Cameron Crowe; with Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Renee Zellweger, Kelly Preston, Jerry O'Connell, Jay Mohr, Regina King, Bonnie Hunt, Jonathan Lipnicki, Todd Louiso. (R, 135 min.)
Jerry Maguire opens with the kind of event that a more traditional movie would generally save for its concluding moments. This disruption should be our first indication that Cameron Crowe's new movie is anything but "business as usual." At the outset of the story, top-of-his-game sports agent Jerry Maguire (Cruise) suffers a pang of conscience that causes him to stay up all night and write an impromptu 25-page-long rant entitled "The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business." Before dawn, Jerry has his idealistic mission statement photocopied, bound, and distributed company-wide, eliminating all possibility of turning back in the light of day. What Jerry proposes is the agency's elimination of "business as usual" and a refocusing of the company's goals toward quality rather than quantity: placing the firm's values in people rather than dollars. Jerry's revelation is the kind of yuppie crisis of faith that other movies structurally build toward, the kind of leaf-turning that signals a happy ending just around the bend and better days ahead. But in Jerry Maguire, the bold act of conscience is only the beginning. Of course, Jerry's midnight scribblings cause him to be fired within the week, thus forcing him to confront the wisdom of his ideals. Only two other people flock to his camp: Dorothy Boyd (Zellweger), an agency bookkeeper who defects with Jerry, and Rod Tidwell (Gooding), a second-tier wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals. Jerry's crisis, however, is interesting in that it doesn't really force him to question the root of what he does, only the manner in which the business is conducted. (For example, the creation of a meretricious, sports-merchandising phenomenon such as Space Jam might still be one of Jerry Maguire's goals; only now he'd make sure that no human beings were harmed during its making.) Swiftly abandoned by his high-powered fiancˇe (Preston), it's not long before Jerry and Dorothy are found tying the knot. Dorothy loves him for "the man he nearly is"; Jerry still has to learn the difference between loyalty and love. We've seen Cruise play this type of smooth operator before: the button-down yupster with the Cheshire grin. What's fascinating is the depth of humanity Cruise finds within the character of Jerry and also Cruise's generosity toward the other actors in the story - a generosity that allows all the other performers to shine and create vivid and memorable characters. Cuba Gooding, Jr. practically steals the show as the ball player with a mouth and attitude as big as his heart. As his proud and loving wife, Regina King delivers a searingly real portrait of a proud black woman and football spouse. Newcomer (and Austin success story) Renee Zellweger takes to the screen like a true natural, and as her caustic yet loving sister Bonnie Hunt winningly serves as the audience's eyes and ears. And captivating new kid star on the block Jonathan Lipnicki demonstrates the truth in the old show-biz adage about never working with dogs, children, or other natural scene-stealers. Very much in keeping with Cameron Crowe's previous writing-directing projects Say Anything and Singles, Jerry Maguire is another sweet (though somewhat long) movie wrapped around a jagged emotional core - one of those tempting sugar confections you devour halfway through before recognizing the strange new taste sensations at the center. (12/13/96)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Great Hills, Lake Creek, Lakehills, Lincoln


D: Thomas Carter; with Eddie Murphy, Michael Rapaport, Michael Wincott, Carmen Ejogo, Denis Arndt. (R, 117 min.)
Having revived his moribund career with last year's out-of-nowhere hit, The Nutty Professor, Eddie Murphy now attempts an even more ambitious artistic feat: reanimating the fly-blown carcass of the cop-buddy movie genre that he helped define with early-Eighties blockbusters like Beverly Hills Cop. But while Metro is patently a get-well commercial move for Murphy, it's also, to his credit, not just Axel Foley redux. Eddie's 35 now, so it's fitting that his new alter ego, San Francisco police hostage negotiator Scott Roper, isn't merely another smack-talking kid squawking along with Sting on his Walkman. Roper is an adult, a guy whose trade tools are psychological insight and a cool head. In his personal life, though, he's still pretty much a screwup, displaying far more expertise at handicapping horse races than managing personal relationships. As a result, his girlfriend Ronnie (exotic up-and-comer Carmen Ejogo) has ditched him for a studly Giants outfielder and is having none of his wan pleas for reconciliation. Back at the station, we have the core elements of the traditional buddy pic, including the pain-in-the-butt new white partner (Rapaport) and the cranky, by-the-books captain (Arndt). But as pro forma as the setup is, director Carter (who directed 1993's underappreciated Swing Kids) and screenwriter Randy Feldman also subtly but meaningfully subvert our expectations. For example, much more attention is paid to Scott's relationship with his old flame than with his partner, especially after Ronnie is kidnapped by a psycho jewel thief (Wincott) who has a vendetta against Roper. The usual car chases and explosions are here, of course (the latter are truly ludicrous, rivaling those Dr. Strangelove fireballs from the action movie parodies in Last Action Hero), but these scenes are at least a bit more inventive than usual and never feel like the story's whole rationale. This is one of those rare cop/action movies driven by character, not spectacle. Murphy helps the cause with the most focused, persuasive acting of his career. As a young phenom, he got by on charisma, which he promptly commodified and cheapened with Hollywood's enthusiastic collusion. Now there's a calm, unfakeable assurance behind his eyes that only comes with life experience. It's something he can and should build on. Two straight hits, as Murphy well remembers, bring you a lot of juice in Hollywood. Here's hoping he doesn't waste it again. (1/24/97)

3.0 stars (R.S.)



D: Nora Ephron; with John Travolta, Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, Bob Hoskins, Robert Pastorelli, Jean Stapleton, Teri Garr. (PG, 105 min.)
Last time we checked in with comeback kid John Travolta he was channeling the powers of higher intelligence in the crypto-spiritual barnstormer Phenomenon. Gossamer fuzz similarly shrouds his follow-up film Michael, in which Travolta appears as an archangel returned to earth to meddle in the affairs of human beings. This kind of angel stuff is classic Hollywood fare, especially at Christmastime. Thus, it's all the more wonder that director Nora Ephron has missed and mishandled so many of her cues. Michael finds Ephron recycling bits and pieces of her previous movies: the casting of a holiday assortment of Mixed Nuts and the sweet belief in the predestination of lovers as in Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally.... The best thing about Michael winds up being Travolta himself. As always, he delivers a magnetic performance and, as has become de rigueur, Travolta dances. And in that one dance sequence, Travolta lifts this sodden angel tale into a truly magical realm. Also good is the performance of William Hurt whose bemused diffidence as a jaded tabloid reporter shows signs of someone actually working to create a believable character. The script (which is credited to four writers: Ephron, her sister Delia Ephron, Pete Dexter, and Jim Quinlan) suffers from thin plotting and lame set-ups. Audiences are likely to react badly to the movie's disappointing pay-offs. Hurt and sidekick Pastorelli play two cynical tabloid reporters from Chicago, Frank Quinlan (there's that name again) and Huey Driscoll, who land an assignment to go to Iowa and follow-up on a report of an angel. Sent to accompany them is "angel expert" Dorothy Winters (MacDowell). Travolta plays the angel Michael, whose mission here is also to be his last visit on earth and he intends to enjoy every minute. (Angels, he explains, are only allowed 26 visits, a curious and unexplained fact that is an example of the kind of extraneous detail that the movie allows us too much free time to explore.) Michael's hook is that he is not a stereotypical angel. He is an earthy figure who is an unkempt, beer-swilling, Beatles-quoting skirt-chaser. Part of his heavenly power is that he exerts a raw magnetism over all women who stray into his path. His mission is to bring together the movie's two squabbling stars, Quinlan and Dorothy, who need divine intervention to realize on their own that they are the two stars of the movie and, therefore, must fall in love. Lacking any real chemistry, however, it is easy to see why these two might miss the point. The whole movie is constructed with a similar kind of disinterested pallor. It's a good thing this archangel Michael comes to earth sporting his own wings. Those ungainly flappers will at least will spare him the indignity of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. (Opens 12/25) (12/27/96)

1.0 stars (M.B.)

Lakeline, Westgate


D: Albert Brooks; with Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glaser, Peter White. (PG, 104 min.)
John Henderson (Brooks) is a science fiction writer who, following his second divorce, decides that it's time for him to figure out, once and for all, the root cause of his failure with women and intimacy. To accomplish this, he decides to move back in with his mother - the primal source of all things intimate and woman-related. Not only does he decide to move back in with his less-than-convinced mom, he wants his old bedroom back (despite its conversion into a sewing room by a woman who never sews). To the tune of a lyrically hilarious update of "Mrs. Robinson," John loads up his convertible and cruises up the highway to Sausalito, drags in from the garage his old lava lamp, twin bed, and wall posters, and reinstates himself in his boyhood home. "Why didn't you want to stay in a hotel?" asks his mom Beatrice (Reynolds). From John's point of view, she once more doesn't "get" it. Or maybe, just maybe, it's that she does get it and though she's happy to see her son, she also knows that his upending of her happy domestic life will do little to explain why his two marriages failed. And perhaps that's the point that Brooks is trying to make, that mothers are people too and that part of John's difficulties stem from his inability to see Beatrice as an individual. Some of the film's funniest moments come from these two as they tentatively try to mesh their habits and lifestyles. Mother finds Brooks in top form as he dons the tri-fold hat of director, star, and writer (with co-writer Monica Johnson). His humor has more of an observational zing than a jokey, one-two patter. Within this structure, Brooks uncovers many of the fidgety truths about the relationships between parents and their grown children. The film comeback of Debbie Reynolds is also a most welcome offshoot of this movie. With impeccable timing and a spirit as pert as ever, Reynolds as Beatrice can manage to introduce John to her supermarket friends as her "other son" and at once be both believably sweet and sadistic. Rob Morrow as the "successful" son who woos his mother with speaker phones and other expensive gifts also delivers a fine performance that mixes deep-seated sibling rivalries with genuine familial concerns. Although Brooks apparently takes a long time between projects (the last movie he directed was 1991's uneven Defending Your Life), the finely honed Mother proves that a new Brooks film is well worth the wait. (1/17/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)

Lakeline, Westgate


D: John Singleton; with Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Bruce McGill, Loren Dean, Michael Rooker. (R, 139 min.)
You understand, of course, that, as a film reviewer, I see many, many movies. Much more so than the average person. Some of them are very good, and many of them are awful, but it's a rare film indeed that sets my heart and head thrumming, that affects me on a personal level, and that makes me gasp in outrage, shock, and a modicum of joy. I left the screening of John Singleton's new film Rosewood quite literally shaking, simultaneously elated at the director's obvious success with his material, and sickened by the events portrayed within. Set in the central Florida township of Rosewood in 1923, Singleton has isolated a single, almost forgotten historical incident and brought it slamming home with all the force of a lead pipe to the jaw. Rhames plays the drifter Mann, a black WWI vet who rides into the smallish, nearly all-black community of Rosewood one warm January day and finds it to his liking. Unlike the neighboring town of Sumner, Rosewood's inhabitants enjoy a precious quality of life in which families own their own land, grow their own crops, and, in general, appear to live an idyllic (by 1923 Floridian standards) and peaceful lifestyle. It's not what Mann expected. That's further down the road in Sumner, a white-trash snakepit of a town, all tarpaper and tin shacks, and bitter, violent people. When a white woman in Sumner falsely accuses an unnamed black assailant of beating her, the Sumner men take up arms against their imagined assailant, and, over the course of a day, burn Rosewood to the ground, destroying not only the township but also many of its inhabitants. Into this racial powderkeg are thrown not only Mann, but also Rosewood's lone white inhabitant, John Wright (Voight), a casually racist shopkeeper who, nonetheless, feels compelled to take a stand against the Sumner men's madness, if only to protect his own interests. At over two hours, there's much more to Singleton's film than this simple synopsis can offer. The director is unflinching in his portrayal of the horrors that occurred, and nearly all the characters, from Voight's Wright to Rhames' Mann, are wonderfully nuanced, desperately believable creations. Bruce McGill's Duke is as pure a cinematic depiction of deep-Southern racist inbreeding as you are likely to see - whenever he opens his mouth, you cringe - and Esther Rolle's wise and silent matriarch Aunt Sarah is gripping in her own steadfast, peaceable way. With its almost Spielbergian denouement toward the penultimate reel, Rosewood may put you in mind of Schindler's List. Singleton lacks that director's fine, elegiac touch with atrocity, preferring instead to shock you into submission with lingering shots of lynchings and their battered aftermath, and his final movement seems a tad rushed after the film's languorous first third. This is Singleton's beast, though, and to compare it to anyone else's is pointless and wrong. Suffice to say Rosewood is an epic: a dark, ghastly chunk of our bloody American history, strung up again for all to see, and, far more importantly, to remember. (2/21/97)

4.0 stars (M.S.)

Great Hills, Lakeline, Lincoln, Westgate


D: Wes Craven; with David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Courteney Cox. (R, 100 min.)
A triumphant return to form for Wes Craven, Scream is the kind of psychological slasher film for which horror fans have been waiting years. The stalk 'n' slash gorefests of the early to mid-Eighties may be a distant crimson glimmer in cinematic history, but most people who grew up with such unique also-rans as Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night, and the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises will gleefully admit the role they played in their adolescence. Like a cultural watermark, those films (and many, many others) helped define teenagers in the Eighties just as surely as did Def Leppard, Stridex Pads, and pre-Jordan Nike footwear. They also prepped us for what not to do when being pursued by an axe-wielding maniac, but sadly, very few ever had the chance to put that knowledge to the test. Not so for the cast of Scream, Wes Craven's new horror film that playfully uses such movies of the past and their writ-in-stone lessons (never leave the house to check on a strange noise outside, never assume the psycho is really dead, never go in the basement if the lights have gone off, etc.) as pivot points in Craven's wonderfully self-reflexive plot. Neve Campbell plays Sidney, a young girl who, one year ago, lost her mother to a murderous maniac. Almost to the day, more body parts start popping up, but this time, it's her friends at Woodsboro High School who are the victims. The unnamed killer wears a cheap Halloween mask and queries his victims on horror-show etiquette via threatening phone calls before doing them in. It's up to Sidney and her clique of horror film buffs (among them the excellent Skeet Ulrich, looking very, very much like Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street) to stay alive long enough to ID the madman before everyone's strung up and butchered like Yuletide hogs. That's the plot in a nutshell, but the real thrill in Scream comes from Craven's gleefully over-the-top plotting and nightmare psychology. One scene featuring a pair of small-town cops discussing the case out-Lynches David Lynch, and Craven's brilliant use of film-within-film-within-film is taken to new heights in the final reel as the surviving characters watch themselves watching John Carpenter's Halloween as they're being stalked, courtesy of a hidden video camera. Scream operates on so many levels at once that you could write a dissertation on it, but the real fun lies in the director's (and cast's) obvious love of the genre. Craven is obviously having a ball here, and it's impossible not to sit back and go grinning into this dark, gory ride. (12/20/96)

3.5 stars (M.S.)

Highland, Movies 12, Westgate


D: Scott Hicks; with Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Alex Rafalowicz, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud, Googie Withers. (PG-13, 105 min.)
What is it about our mad artists that makes us love them so? Shine now adds the story of Australian pianist David Helfgott to our popular literature. Based on the life story of this child prodigy, Shine tells the story of this artist's life - from his early years of study under the tutelage of his stern, tyrannical father (Mueller-Stahl), who is himself an emotionally scarred victim of the Holocaust; to David's decision to accept a scholarship to study abroad, which results in his disinheritance by his father, who permanently cuts David out of his life; to David's own mental breakdown in his 20s while performing his personal bogeyman piece, Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" (affectionately referred to throughout the film as Rach 3); to David's decade-long institutionalization for treatment of his mental condition during which time he is forbidden to play the piano (the movie breezes past these years); to David's resurrection of himself as a popular performer and his discovery of the love of a good woman, an astrologer named Gillian (Redgrave). This sentimental favorite from last January's Sundance Film Festival begins with the artist's redemption, showing his re-entry into the world of the living following his long hibernation. It seals our romantic vision of the mad artist as an indomitable vessel whose functional resurrection is a testament to the human spirit. By choosing to tell in flashback the sad trajectory of this young man's life, the filmmakers have chosen to stress the human ability to triumph over the injustices of the past. It's as if to state that true artistry and a good soul will win out every time, and since we see little of David's years of isolation and therapy, we have no evidence to refute that romantic notion. Despite Shine's over-reliance on its feel-good story structure that leaves more questions unanswered than asked, the movie is wonderfully constructed. The viewer is swept along by the drama of David's life story, in its specifics of how a father's love and pride also contain the seeds of poison, and in its generalities about Oedipal knots and the sins of the fathers. No one aspect is ever examined terribly closely, making David Helfgott almost as much of a cipher at the end of the movie as at the beginning - only now we have witnessed a resurrection and a just cause to celebrate. Contributing enormously to the success of the movie are its awesome performances. It is no accident that Geoffrey Rush, who plays David Helfgott in his latter years (he is played as a child by Alex Rafalowicz and as a young man by Noah Taylor) is showing up as best actor of the year on so many critical year-end lists. His performance as the babbling, stuttering bundle of childlike manhood is the film's most exuberant glory. As the anguished father, Mueller-Stahl delivers a performance that is truly devastating to watch. If, at times, Shine's luster reveals more elbow grease than internal radiance, the movie is still a moving tribute to the human capacity to overcome all odds. (12/27/96)

3.5 stars (M.B.)

Barton Creek, Highland, Village


D: Billy Bob Thornton; with Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall. (R, 135 min.)
So you thought you were talking funny after seeing Fargo, yah? Well, Billy Bob, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wait until you experience Sling Blade. Not only will it take some time to get your speech right again, it'll be a good while before you get your mind right again. That's how deeply Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade gets under your skin and soaks right through to the tributaries in your skull. Thornton, who wrote, directed, and stars in Sling Blade, has created an unforgettable character and situation, a film that's sure to become an American classic. It's something of a Southern gothic tale populated with characters who might have stepped over from a Carson McCullers story. Thornton plays Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man with a distinctive speech pattern who, at the start of the film, is involuntarily released from an asylum for the criminally insane where he has spent the last 25 years for the crime of killing two people. He returns to the small Southern town of his birth where he is befriended by a young boy named Frank (Black), who is probably about the same age as Karl was went he was sent away and is also the first person to accept this strange child/man without judgment. Frank and his mother Linda (Canerday) take Karl into their home, a shelter that is darkened by the abusive, alcoholic violence that pours forth from Linda's ever-encroaching boyfriend Doyle (Yoakam). The situation forces Karl into a moral dilemma, which he confronts with all the understanding of good and evil that his simple mental capacity and warped religious background can bear. A virtuosic showcase for the talents of Billy Bob Thornton (a fact that has not escaped Academy voters who nominated Thornton in dual Oscar categories), the success of Sling Blade nevertheless stems from so much more than Thornton's efforts alone. Sling Blade is a character-driven story, dependent on so many vivid performances and original characters. John Ritter (Thornton's co-star in the short-lived TV series Hearts Afire) delivers a career-great performance as Linda's best friend and ineffectual protector, a closeted gay man trying to live unobtrusively in this small Southern town; Dwight Yoakam is, at first, virtually unrecognizable as Linda's despicable cur of a boyfriend; and not until I saw the end credits was I able to see that it was Robert Duvall (the original Boo Radley figure) who portrayed Karl's disheveled, besotted hull of a father. In addition to figures such as Jim Jarmusch showing up in a cameo as a Tastee Cream counter clerk and J.T. Walsh lending his distinctive brand of eccentricity to the proceedings, musicians such as Vic Chesnutt and local luminary Ian Moore make priceless appearances as members of Doyle's godawful backyard band. Although it could be argued that Sling Blade could withstand a touch of judicious trimming and that the plot occasionally strains the boundaries of realism, these things do not mar the awesome achievements of the movie in the least. With an aim that's true, Sling Blade plants one right between the eyes. (2/21/97)

4.0 stars (M.B.)



D: George Lucas; with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Sir Alec Guiness. (PG, 125 min.)
No synopsis necessary, I'll presume. On the eve of commencing work on the new triumvirate that will make up the Star Wars trilogy's prequels, wunderkind Lucas and 20th Century Fox have opted to soup up the first three films as part of a simultaneous marketing push and as a means to smooth over some of the rougher spots that made it to theatres 20 years ago. Has it really been that long? It certainly doesn't seem so, but, yes, here we are in 1997 and the Force is still with us, iconic and pervasive in ways that no one - not even the studio brass - could have predicted two decades back. This "Special Edition" is by no means the director's cut one might expect from Lucas and company; the total additional footage amounts to a little under five minutes, and most of it is extraneous, there only to highlight and flesh out certain scenes. The Mos Eiseley spaceport on the desert planet Tatooine - where Obi Wan takes Luke and the droids to meet Han Solo - is now the sprawling den of thieves it was originally intended to be, complete with a much-improved landspeeder for Luke and plenty of rearing Dewbacks and assorted CGI critters hamming it up in the background. Previously excised footage of Jabba the Hut conversing with a startlingly youthful Solo is back in, and the rebel fleet is now much, much larger than it first appeared. Most of the changes on this newly refurbished print are purely cosmetic (the film is now in THX, although not, for some reason, at the advance screening I took in), but Lucas' vision still packs a mighty Saturday-afternoon wallop. I'd forgotten just how viscerally exhilarating the rebel forces' final run on the death star is. It's an icy-pure, white-knuckle ride that never lets up until the final ceremony on Endor - masterful editing, pacing, and vision all the way. Whew! Those of us who were old enough to catch the film as kids the first time around may even find an unexpected lump in their throats as the nostalgia gates bust wide open and Vader gets his, once again, on that giant, silver screen. (1/31/97)

4.5 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Highland, Lake Creek, Movies 12, Northcross, Riverside, Roundrock, Westgate


D: Richard Linklater; with Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Amie Carey, Nicky Katt, Dina Spybey, Jayce Bartok, Parker Posey, Samia Shoaib, Ajay Naidu. (R, 118 min.)
Adapted by Eric Bogosian from his stage play, subUrbia follows the alienated, angst-ridden, and collapsing world of five friends over the course of one night as they meet up with a former buddy of theirs who is now a successful rock star. Twenty-year-old Jeff (Ribisi) is the de facto ringleader and conscience of the group, if only by virtue of his sluggish collegiate career and idealistic ambitions. His girlfriend Sooze (Carey) is a budding performance artist and painter with dreams of New York City in her eyes, while her friend Bee-Bee, a quietly damaged girl fresh out of the bottle, seems content to have dreams at all. Besotted party animal Buff (Zahn) and the alcoholic, racist, ex-Air Force thug Tim (Katt) round out the motley group which spends most of its time hanging outside a convenience store run by a Pakistani couple, Nazeer and Pakeesa (Naidu and Shoaib). When word spreads that old pal-turned-rock star Pony (Bartok) might be dropping by later after his concert, everyone assembles outside the Circle A to shoot the shit and Wait for the Man. Pony does indeed show up - in a stretch limo, and with slinky publicist Erica (Posey) in tow - but far from being the friendly reunion they had in mind, the evening soon degenerates into an emotional free-for-all, with Pony questioning his good fortune, Sooze questioning her feelings for Jeff, and Jeff questioning everything he can get his mind around. Meanwhile, Tim is baiting Nazeer with racist remarks, Bee-Bee's grip on sobriety is slipping, and Buff is running out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Linklater's (and Bogosian's) running commentary on disaffected suburban youth is that it doesn't bore you half as much as it should. Linkater's fluid direction (and Lee Daniel's eerily lit nighttime cinematography) keeps the petty mutterings of Generation Beer! at bay long enough to develop some tangentially interesting storylines, but with a running time of over two hours, the film could have lost a solid 30 minutes and been all the more tighter for it. As Jeff, Ribisi is the spearhead of rational thought (he's also a dead ringer for Green Day's Billie Joe, but that's neither here nor there), and there's precious little of that to go round. With a best friend who's a not-so-closeted racist and another who spends 90% of the film in an alcoholic haze, his late-breaking epiphany of pulling up stakes and heading east with Sooze feels less like an act of romantic courage than common sense. Set in the fictional town of Burnfield, subUrbia could take place in virtually any urban-lite zone (it was shot here in Austin), which makes it all the more nightmarishly disturbing for its realism: waves of semi-talented young wastrels, idly killing time, never noticing that time fights back. (2/21/97)

3.0 stars (M.S.)

Arbor, Dobie, Lakehills


D: Doug Liman; with Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, Patrick Van Horn, Alex Desert, Heather Graham, Deena Martin. (R, 108 min.)
"You're so money and you don't even know it" is the constant refrain that Mike (Favreau) hears from his hipster friends Trent (Vaughn) and Sue (Van Horn) throughout director Doug Liman's feature film debut Swingers. Being money is the thing, baby, and if you're like Trent, you work it in order to get the "beautiful babies." If you're like Mike, who's still reeling from the breakup with his longtime girlfriend Michelle, you're just too damn depressed to care. I like Mike, and I found myself enjoying Swingers the more it developed these characters. Or I should say, I liked the film in spite of characters like Trent and Sue, who categorize women as either beautiful babies or nasty skanks, a paradigm that begs the question, "Were you abandoned by your mother at an early age?" Mike, on the other hand, is not willing to buy into those beliefs, and once he gets back on his feet and realizes he is money in his own way, he becomes quite an appealing (dare I say sexy?) guy. But Mike's realization is a long time coming, and the bulk of Swingers' narrative focuses on the exploits of these friends - all aspiring actors or entertainers of some kind - as they make their way through the L.A. party scene, which includes the subculture of 1940s-style swing clubs and lounges. The well-crafted script (written in two weeks by Favreau for his actor friends) and slick visuals pay homage to swingers both past and present: from the Rat Pack of the 1960s and films like Ocean's Eleven to the current prince of pastiche Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs. Prefacing a tribute to a particularly iconic Reservoir Dogs sequence is this tongue-in-cheek comment about contemporary filmmakers: "Everyone steals everything from everybody." But viewers will be pleasantly surprised to see something rare in this film, which is the way that Mike's character experiences his romantic suffering. Rather than take it on the chin, Mike wallows in it, managing to retain viewer sympathy despite some very ill-advised dating decisions that involve the basic standards and practices for calling a woman. There's no question that Mike's the underdog here, and I found myself rooting for him throughout the film. Swingers gets off to a slightly irritating start but segues smoothly into a series of comical and bittersweet plot developments. Favreau himself is no stranger to uphill battles; shedding 90 pounds prior to this film, he liberated himself as an actor from "fat kid" roles such as his appearance in Rudy. Weight issues aside, actor-screenwriter Favreau and director Liman demonstrate with Swingers that they're definitely "money." (11/1/96)

3.5 stars (A.M.)



D: Bob Spiers; Christina Ricci, Doug E. Doug, Dean Jones, George Dzundza, Peter Boyle, Michale McKean, Bess Armstrong, Dyan Cannon, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Parsons. (PG, 89 min.)
Though I never saw the 1965 original starring Hayley Mills, I wasn't really averse to seeing this remake. After all, it stars Christina Ricci, who was so deliciously dolorous as Wednesday Addams. It was directed by Bob Spiers of Absolutely Fabulous and Fawlty Towers fame. And the screenplay is by S.M. Alexander and L.A. Karaszewski, who are reaping notoriety and accolades for having penned The People vs. Larry Flynt. This picture is plain weird, a sort of Blue Velvet for the younger set, a portrait of a New England town with a split personality. Teen rebel, Patti (Ricci) is bored stiff, stuck in sleepy Edgefield, which seems stuck in the Fifties. She amuses herself by trying, futilely, to get her Stepford mom (Armstrong) to utter a curse word. What she doesn't know, but her sidekick cat does, is that Edgefield seems sleepy in the daytime because it's been up all night. The denizens of the deeply disturbed burg include a dowdy-by-day butcheress who at dusk dresses up like a prostitute and deposits fine cuts of meat on the object of her (unrequited) love's doorstep, a pair of dueling bozos who don ski masks and trash each other's business every night, and a 70-year-old soda jerk who jitterbugs with his prom-dressed wife, to name but a few. And any one of them (or all of them), as the cat discovers, could be kidnappers. But wait, I make it sound too interesting. Actually, this picture is tedious and painful. Doug plays his FBI rookie Zeke Kelso as a sort of Agent Andy in search of an Amos. His characterization, also stuck in the Fifties, is insultingly unfunny. And the verrry long movie ends in a spectacularly boring, drawn out car chase. In short, That Darn Cat has plenty of weirdness, but not a bit of wit. Despite its pedigreed credits, the humane thing to do would be to put That Darn Cat quickly and quietly to sleep. (2/21/97)

1.0 stars (H.C.)

Barton Creek, Great Hills, Highland, Lakeline, Movies 12, Roundrock


D: Andrˇ Tˇchinˇ; with Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Laurence C™te, Benoit Magimel, Fabienne Babe, Didier Bezace, Julien Riviere. (R, 117 min.)
French director Andrˇ Tˇchinˇ incorporates the same intriguing narrative structure and complex characterization in his most recent work, Thieves, as with his last film Wild Reeds. Daniel Auteuil stars as Alex, a cop who comes from a family of sophisticated criminals. When his older brother Ivan (Bezace) is killed during a high-stakes car theft, Alex begins an investigation into his death that reveals much more than simply the events that surrounded Ivan's homicide. Complicating Alex's investigation is his own romantic involvement with Ivan's occasional lover Juliette (C™te), a young woman of considerable passion and emotional instability. With co-screenwriter Gilles Taurand, Tˇchinˇ slowly reveals each character, allowing us to view the same events through their very different viewpoints. Like a carefully crafted puzzle, each individually titled segment gives us more insight into Alex, Juliette, Ivan, and Juliette's professor/mentor/lover Marie (Deneuve). Thieves unfolds much like a novel, with each segment representing a distinct chapter of the same story. And similar to a novel, the film appears quite wordy, with the characters speaking constantly, either to themselves or to one another. Despite the wealth of information revealed by these characters, they remain somewhat distanced from us and each other. They are thieves in the traditional sense, but they also are emotional criminals, stealing feelings from one another in an effort to be alive and to stay connected. Some of the characters, like Alex and his nephew Justin (Riviere), benefit from this thievery. Others, like the mysterious Marie, seem only to self-destruct once they complete the connection. Similar to Wild Reeds in the way that the film privileges emotional exploration over dramatic action, Thieves nonetheless maintains a vigorous pace through its shifting of viewpoints. The film's ability to capture the different voices in the family allows us to choose whom to identify with, providing a changeable viewing experience. As with many French films and Tˇchinˇ's films in particular (his Ma Saison Prefˇrˇe is a good example), the narrative exploration conveys a distance that may appear sterile or overly intellectual to some, but ultimately it makes Thieves a challenging - and perhaps refreshing - alternative to many of the films of late. (2/21/97)

3.0 stars (A.M.)



D: Paul Schrader; with Skeet Ulrich, Christopher Walken, Tom Arnold, Bridget Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Gina Gershon, Lolita Davidovich, Paul Mazursky, John Doe, Conchata Ferrell, Mason Adams. (R, 97 min.)
This trenchant little satire of modern celebrity culture and spiritual bankruptcy would be an instant minor classic if sheer aggregate mass of cool participants translated directly to artistic merit. Touch boasts a director of passion and occasional brilliance (Schrader), a script (by Elmore Leonard) that valiantly avoids clichˇ, and a cast bristling with some of the best actors working today - including personal favorites Walken, Gershon, and Garofalo. But as with other checklist juggernauts (Short Cuts for example), there's an odd lifelessness to this movie that's largely traceable to the script's emphasis of vivid characterization over compelling ideas and narrative momentum. Leonard's fascination with scuzzy hustler types again surfaces here in the form of a washed-up evangelist named Bill Hill (Walken). Hill wants to get back in the game and thinks he's found his ticket in an ex-monk named Juvenal (the suddenly ubiquitous Ulrich) who heals the sick and disabled by laying on hands - accompanied by a visually socko effect of Christlike bleeding from the side and extremities. Aided by a cute accomplice (Fonda), Hill connives to spirit Juvenal away from the tiny inner-city church where he works his miracles in an obscurity consistent with his humble, regular Joe personality. Parallel plotlines activate at this point, including a tenderly sexy love story between Fonda and the appealing (in a generic, Ethan/Deppish way) Ulrich, and a war between Hill and a rival huckster (Arnold) over who'll bring in the monetary sheaves of managing Juvenal's "career." Tasty, ironic humor and gemlike cameos - Gershon is especially savory as a scurrilous TV talk-show host - follow, but these vivid moments are just that and nothing more. They emerge briefly from the story's gentle, rolling boil then submerge without a trace. Numbingly utilitarian camerawork leaves the script to carry the film, and it isn't up to the job. Even granting Schrader his right to avoid fulsome Big Statements and satirical cheap shots (what ridicule hasn't already been heaped on televangelists' Brilliantined heads?), this is a letdown. One looks for heat, if nothing else, from a movie helmed by the guy who wrote Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Light Sleeper. Instead, Touch simply jangles coolly along until an innocuous ending that, while semi-unexpected, gives the entire film the effect of a two-hour shaggy dog story. Funny; I always figured Schrader for a bang-not-a-whimper guy. (2/21/97)

2.5 stars (R.S.)



D: Danny Boyle; with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald. (R, 94 min.)
Two young men are hurtling down a street as Iggy Pop's incantatory ode to survival, "Lust for Life," blasts through the theatre's speakers. Concurrently, a voiceover, with a thick Scottish accent, sardonically disembowels society's empty exhortation to "choose life." Trainspotting is a modern-day movie about the experiences of some unrepentant Scottish junkies, yet in its opening moments, Trainspotting spiritually resembles nothing so much as the Beatles' careening burst of adrenaline-charged "devil-may-care" in their introductory movies, A Hard Day's Night and Help! Hardly cute and cuddly moptops, these Trainspotting rogues are, nevertheless, driven by similarly simplistic formulas. In the movies, the Beatles race along trying to stay one step ahead of crazed fans and other pursuers; action for the Trainspotting crew is solely motivated by the need to fix and score. Instead of the social-realism approach taken by most movies dealing with drug subcultures, Trainspotting observes its subjects with a mordant eye - an inclusive perspective that permits humor, exhilaration, wit, and hyperbole to mingle with stark realism and dingy morality. Some have (falsely) interpreted this stance as a dangerous glorification of heroin, but Trainspotting really remains neutral on the subject. Heroin, with its pitfalls and pleasures, is merely a fact of life, and so are the subcultures and lifestyles it generates. The movie does not ignore the drug's harrows, but neither does it deny heroin's intractable lure and efficacy. In fact, the movie's most pathologically violent and twisted character is an alcoholic who never touches heroin. Trainspotting plainly includes various heroin-related tragedies such as AIDS, crib death, and personal betrayal, but it also resorts frequently to humor and exaggeration in order to drive home other points. (The most obvious example of this is the scene in which a character swims into the most disgusting toilet/cesspool of feces in order to retrieve a couple of heroin suppositories he unwittingly excreted, thereby showing in an astonishingly vivid, surreal, and unforgettable manner the literal depths to which one can sink in the quest to score.) The same Scottish team (director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge, and actor Ewan McGregor) responsible for 1994's surprise low-budget hit Shallow Grave reunite here for Trainspotting despite serious wooing and many lucrative proposals from Hollywood financiers. Also retained for this sophomore effort are many of the same crew members who worked on Shallow Grave. Additionally, Irvine Walsh, the author of the novel on which Trainspotting is based, appears as a drug dealer toward the end of the movie. At times, the Scottish accents seem difficult for Americans to penetrate, and the characters' dexterous use of slang and subculture references do not make things any easier. Yet the ear, if permitted, adapts quickly to the foreign cadences, and though some of the specifics and nuances may pass unclarified, isn't that the way of all subculture lingo? The on-target performances, along with the unceasing barrage of popular music and daring narrative gambles, combine to make Trainspotting one of the grand movie rushes of 1996. (8/2/96)

4.0 stars (M.B.)



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