SLING BLADE - DANTE'S PEAK - GRIDLOCK'D
PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAIN - KOYLA - THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD

SLING BLADE

In his directorial debut, "Sling Blade", writer/actor Billy Bob Thornton stars as Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man just released from a mental hospital after 25 years. Karl was abused and neglected as a child by his fanatically religious parents and, at age 12, killed his mother and her lover for doing a "bad thing".

Released from the asylum against his will, Karl returns to his home town, where he befriends, and is befriended by, young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black). Frank convinces his mother, Linda, to allow Karl to live in their garage, against the wishes of Linda's red-neck boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). This introduces the conflict of right vs wrong and good vs bad that is the heart of the story in "Sling Blade".

Robin ROBIN:
"Sling Blade" has been, for me, one of 1996's most hotly anticipated movies. While we've been seeing trailers for a while, and it opened in New York/LA in Decemeber to qualify for the Oscars, we've had to wait until now to see it in Boston.

It is worth the wait.

While "Sling Blade" is not a perfect film - its too long by 15 minutes and the pace drags now and again - it is a tour de force effort by Billy Bob Thornton. I can't think of an actor/director/writer who has done a superior job, creatively, their first time out of the gate.

Thornton's performance as Karl Childers is one of best character studies I have seen on film. Thornton says that he is so used to doing the character, Karl, that he doesn't think it is all that tough an acting job. In Karl, Thornton has created such an incredibly unique individual that his initial weirdness soon disappears as you get into the retarded, by no means stupid, mind of a man faced with a dilemma of right vs wrong. Karls permanent grin and jutting jaw mask the gears of his mind working out how to best protect his friend, Frank, and his mom from the badness of boyfriend, Dwight.

More reminiscent of the Boo Radley character (played, in a debut performance, by Robert Duval, who also plays Karl's father, here) from 1962's "To Kill A Mockingbird" than "Forrest Gump", Billy Bob Thornton jumps onto my best actor list for this remarkable performance.

The rest of the supporting cast are uniformly fine. Lucas Black, who caught my attention on the TV series, " American Gothic", does a solid job portraying Karl's best friend. The relationship between the two characters is believable and convincing.

Other notable performers are John Ritter as Vaughn, the out-of-place gay friend of young Frank's mother - a very sensitive performance by Ritter - and country singer Dwight Yoakam in an effective, sleazy performance as the reprehensible, abusive boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves. Both of these actors are on my long list for supporting actor attention.

The script, written by Thornton, does not contain many surprises. Early events foreshadow things to come in an expected manner. This is not really a problem, since it's the characters, especially Karl, we're here to see.

Thornton's direction is straightforward, without embellishment. He doesn't try to get fancy or artsy in his yeoman-like first direction effort.

Locations, set in Thornton's home state of Arkansas, are quite fitting for the temperment and dark moodiness of this gothic story.

All in all, my complaints on "Sling Blade" are minimal, while my praise, on several levels, is high. I'm glad that the event meets the expectations.

I give "Sling Blade" an A.

Laura LAURA:
Billy Bob Thornton has been slowly making inroads into Hollywood as a character actor ("One False Move," "Dead Man") and screenwriter ("One False Move," "A Family Thing," both cowritten with Tom Epperson). With "Slingblade," Billy Bob's directorial debut, first solo screenplay and lead role, Thornton racks up an impressive achievement in the American Southern gothic vein as well as delivering the best performance by an actor in 1996. Amazingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts agrees, bestowing a Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for "Slingblade." (Although "Slingblade is an original work, that second nomination for adaptation is because Thornton has been developing the character of Karl Childers since 1985, having performed the film's opening dialogue in a one-man stage show.)

The tale is full of symbolism and metaphor, beginning with the title. A slingblade is a curved blade, dull on the inside and sharp on the outside, the opposite of Childers' character. The main characters name also establishes him as both a childlike man and protector of children.

Childers is also represented as a soldier of God - one of the few books he carries is the Bible. He comes to back to his small Southern hometown from the 'nervous hospital' which he returns to after he has, in his own way, rectified events which may be seen as an echo of his own abused, horrific childhood.

The director of the mental hospital calls for a favor from Bill Cox (played by newcomer Rick Dial, a childhood friend of Thornton's, in a completely natural performance) to give Childers a low paying job as an appliance repairman. Cox comments "he sure knows how to fix things - God works in mysterious ways."

Thornton's performance is very physical - his speach is a gutteral monotone punctuated by his own acknowledging 'mmmm, hmmm's' which Frank (Lucas Black of TV's "American Gothic") describes as sounding like a race car. Childers' head juts forward over stooped and slumping shoulders, with a downturned mouth prominent on his lantern jaw. That mouth line of his gradually and subtley begins to turn upward as his friendship with Frank deepens and he's able to take pleasure in the relationship. His clunkily shod feet and jerky but determined gait recall Frankenstein.

Cinematographer Barry Markowitz, who's created a murky world, also accents Childer's character with his lighting. When we meet Karl, his eyes are in deep shadow, giving him an almost skull-like appearance. By mid film, when Karl is with Frank, the scene's most prominent lighting are the eyelights making Karl's eyes the central focus point of the scene.

Terrific work also comes from the supporting cast. Country singer Dwight Yoakam is the abusive monster Doyle Hargraves, yet Yoakam manages to underscore the character with enough self doubt that one verges on almost pitying him more than hating him. John Ritter really surprises as Vaughan Cunningham, an outwardly gay man trying to live in a less than open-minded society. He's another misfit trying to protect his best friend Linda and her son Frank. Robert Duvall appears briefly as the abusive father who refuses to acknowledge Karl as his son. J.T. Walsh is creepy as another inmate who enjoys regaling Karl with tales of the ugly sex crimes that landed him in the hospital.

Daniel Lanois (Grammy winning producer of U2) also provides a terrific score.

A


DANTE'S PEAK

In the first of 1997's volcano movies, director Roger Donaldson brings us "Dante's Peak," which opens as the titled Washington town celebrates its Pioneer Days Festival. Coffee shop owner, single mother of two and Mayor of Dante's Peak, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) receives an award for her town as the 2nd best place to live in the U.S. with a population of under 20,000 as volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) arrives on the scene to check out seismic activity at the long dormant volcano which majestically looms above. Of course the more he looks, the more evidence of potential disaster he finds which no one wants to act upon until it's too late.

Laura LAURA:
Enough already. "Dante's Peak" is just another hackneyed, cliched script (heavily reminiscent of "Jaws," "Cliffhanger," and many other films) existing only as a vehicle for some superb special effects. At least "Twister" featured a natural disaster that could move around and had flying cows!

Let's tick off those elements that we've seen a thousand times. The first warning of doom comes when two lovers decide to swim nude in a hot springs. We've got a developer ready to pump 18 million and 800 jobs into the town. We've got a mechanical device affectionately known as Spiderlegs, which malfunctions ("Twister's Dorothy, anyone?). Mom warns her son not to play in an abandoned mine, which becomes the locale of the film's climax. Stubborn Grandma doesn't want to leave her home perilously high on the mountain's side, putting everyone in jeopardy only to sacrifice herself for their safety. And oh yes - the dog is saved.

Pierce Brosnan does a serious turn of the same role he played in "Mars Attacks." And why is his character named after the actor who played Bond before him? Linda Hamilton spends more time delivering coffee than running the town.

Some gorgeous cinematography is wasted. The moment which most caught my attention is an interior helicopter shot so beautifully lit that oranges and turquoises pop off the screen. As the main characters flee from the volcano, Linda Hamilton's face is reflected in the interior of the vehicle's window and becomes superimposed over the volcano. Nice shot, but it loses its effectiveness when the director chooses to use it a second time later in the film.

There's one suspenseful scene when the group flees grandma's lodge as lava comes flowing through it by boat, only to discover that the lake has become acidic and is eating away at the boat and its propellers. Even this is made foolish as the wharf they scramble for disintegrates away behind them, again recalling a scene from "Jaws."


GRIDLOCK'D

Actor Vondie Curtis Hall makes his debut behind the camera as director and writer of "Gridlock'd", one of the last films by slain rapper Tupac Shakur.

Shakur and Tim Roth play Spoon and Stretch, a couple of musicians with a serious drug problem. Still, everything is cool, until New Year's Eve, when their best friend and lead singer, Cookie (Thandie Newton), o.d.'s on heroin, forcing the pair to enter the quagmire of bureaucracy as they, first, try to get help for Cookie, then, for themselves as they try to kick their drug habit.

Thus begins a most unusual road movie as Stretch and Spoon, between dodging drug dealers and cops, journey from one government office to the next, seeking help, but never getting it.

Robin ROBIN:
"Gridlock'd" is an odd little debut film for Vondie Curtis Hall. At its heart, it's a buddy/road movie, with Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as an unlikely pair of friends.

The interesting aspect of the "road" part of the story is the road itself. Their journey takes them into the governments Medicare bureaucracy, which proves to be a rocky road, indeed. Their trek takes them all over New York as they try to break into the welfare system and get the help they need to kick their mutual heroin habit. During this trek, they meet all manner of bureaucrats, from the compassionate and honestly helpful, to the kind of uncooperative functionary that we all have run into at one time or another. By the time the film ends, the two heroes have gone full circle and return to their starting point, but, now, with a little glimmer of hope.

The script, by Curtis Hall, handles the road trip pretty well. We're amused and appalled by their plight, mainly because its ground many of us have traveled ourselves. The only problem with the script is that it tries to cover too much for the films 90+ minute run time. It shouldn't be longer, but, maybe, a little less ambitious in its effort. For example, a riot scene in a welfare office led by a blind character, played by Howard Hesseman, happens completely out of the blue - there is no setup or reason for this event. Scenes like this would have best been left in the editing room.

Shakur and Roth work very convincingly as friends. In a change from formula, Curtis Hall has Roth's Stretch as the loose cannon character and Shakur's Spoon as the level-headed one of the pair. I like the chemistry between the two and enjoyed their verbal repartee. Roth does the best job of playing a heroin addict. Shakur is likable as the more sensible of the pair.

Thandie Newton ("Flirting") is charming in a small role. Most of her screen time is spent in flashback, so you don't get the full effect of the relationship of the three principles. Her past and present performances indicate a growing talent.

Technically, the film moves along without too much difficulty, though nothing is of particular note.

In the end, I think that Vondie Curtis Hall does an assured, if not yet experienced, job behind the camera. His acting background shows in his direction, evincing good character performances from his principle talent.

An ambitious, too ambitious, effort by Curtis Hall that shows talent and a future behind the camera.

I give "Gridlock'd" a B-

Laura LAURA:
"Gridlock'd" is a Kafkaesque tale of inner city bureacracy which never quite finds a consistent groove. It does improve as it goes along, though, and the tone gradually shifts from serious to comedic.

Roth and Shakur play well against each other utilizing very different styles. Roth is out of his mind and has some very funny moments as the less responsible Stretch. When Stretch tries to chat up two cops to keep two drug dealers at bay, his chutzpah is a joy to behold. The film's funniest scene shows us Stretch and Spoon trying to get away by getting themselves admitted to a hospital - Spoon decides he must be stabbed and Roth gleefully begins jabbing away at him promising to 'cut him between the organs.' Tupac plays Spoon as the more soulful friend who's more serious about kicking heroin (it's his girlfriend Cookie, played by Thandie Newton, who OD'd). In an early, heavily ironic scene, Spoon tells Stretch that he thinks his luck's running out. When Shakur's did in real life, we lost a very interesting and talented screen presence.

While not entirely successful, there's enough humor and humanism amid gritty urban locations to recommend "Gridlock'd." I'm going to keep an eye on actor turned director Vondie Curtis Hall.

B-


PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS

is the Russian nominee for Foreign Language Film. Director Sergei Bodrov has adapted Leo Tolstoy's short story "Prisoner of the Caucausus" and set it against the present day conflict in Chechnya. A young Russian recruit Vania (the director's son Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) and a veteran soldier Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) are captured and held for ransom by Abdoul-Mourat, a Muslim who wishes to trade for his son who's being held in a Russian jail. The two Russians slowly become friends in captivity and the younger Vania even becomes friendly with his captors, especially Abdoul-Mourat's daughter Dina.

Laura LAURA:
"Prisoner of the Mountains" is a truly solid anti-war film that unfolds with humor, harsh realities, whimsy and a twisty storyline that ends with a double dose of irony.

The innocent Vania finds what he can to like in people while the more cynical Sasha initially rebuffs, but gradually warms to him. Vania fixes his captor's watch and makes a wooden bird for Dina. Sasha finds a stash of forbidden alcohol. The two have a hilarious shackled dance when "Let My People Go" strangely appears on the radio. The pragmatist Sasha kills one of the villager in an escape attempt sealing his fate, but returns as an amusing ghost to continue his amusing takes on situations for Vania's benefit.

In another thread, Vania's schoolteacher mother travels to the Caucausus to negotiate the return of her son. She must deal with both the Russian Army and the Muslims in an effort we know must be doomed by duplicitousness.

The photography shows off the beautiful Caccausus locations. A stunning shot of the two captives peering out from behind a barn door where vibrant blue paint peels off the wood is echoed by the blue-shadowed snow against the earthy brown terrain.

"Prisoner of the Mountains" recalled the Irish film "Some Mother's Son" for me - two sides caught up in a stupid war which only brings untold tragedy to both sides as parents despair over the fates of their children. Call this one "Some Mother's Son, Some Father's Son."

B+/B+

Robin ROBIN:
This is a rare example of film today: the theatrical trailer - usually the best aspects of a film - does not do "Prisoner of the Mountains" justice. What appeared, upon viewing the trailer, to be a weakly sentimental story of cultures clashing, turns out to be a powerful tale (based on Tolstoy's "Prisoner of the Caucasus") of parental love against a backdrop of rebellion.

The Russian empire is crumbling. Its forces no longer have the leadership or the spirit to maintain their occupation in the recently freed republics, such as Chechnya. The Chechens realize this and do all they can to undermine the occupation. There is a line by a local army commander complaining about how his troops trade hand grenades for hashish with the locals, only to have the grenades thrown back at them! This statement is later punctuated with two scenes: a Russian soldier trades his side arm for a bottle of vodka; later, a Chechen buys the same gun to kill Russians. Obvious symbolism, maybe, but effective, nonetheless.

The personal story the film tells has two sides: one, that of the Chechen elder, Abdul, using whatever means he can to get his son released from the Russians, even keeping Russian prisoners against the will of the rest of the village, is countered by the other side as the young conscript, Vania, tries, with the help of his Russian mother, to negotiate a trade for Abdul's son. This is a story that is foreign, no pun intended, to Americans and deserves attention, if only for the exposure to another world not often seen in the U.S.

Acting by the director's son, Sergei, Jr, as Vania, the younger prisoner, is stolid. More intriguing is Oleg Menshikov as the older, more seasoned, Russian prisoner, Sasha. He acts, effectively, as Vania's muse throughout the film, even after death.

Young Susanna Mekhralieva has a pleasant and sweet presence as Adbul's daughter Dina. Dina represents the practical nature of the mountain folk. When Vania asks for her help in escaping, she replies that she can't do that, but, she will see that he's buried WHEN he's dead. An interesting example of compassion, again, foreign to American film.

Cinematography, with the Caucasus as a backdrop, is starkly beautiful, with some shots of the mountainous landscape rivalling the gorgeous desert photography seen in "The English Patient". The locale and interior photography also shows the filmic artistry of cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev.

"Prisoner of the Mountains", like the other Oscar nominee for foreign film, "Kolya", is an interesting and educational view into a culture not really known or understood by the West. Were lucky to even have such films.


KOYLA

The Czech entry for the best foreign film Oscar, "Kolya" takes place on the eve of the Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution.

A renowned cellist, Frantisek Louka (Zdenek Sverak), is fired from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra because of his anti-authority convictions. Out of work, he's forced to play at cremation ceremonies to make ends meet, so, when things get really tight, he agrees to accept money to take part in a fake marriage to allow a young Russian woman to emigrate to Czechoslovakia.

The young woman soon runs off to Germany, leaving Louka the unexpected burden of caring for her six year old son, Kolya (Andrej Chalimon). The pair have their own Czech-Russian conflict in their little home at the same time as their two countries experience the political upheaval created by the lifting of the Iron Curtain that has ruled their countries for 50 years.

Robin ROBIN:
"Kolya" could have been a rankly sentimental entry to the foreign film category, a la "Cinema Paradiso". Instead, the father/son team of Zdenek and Jan Sverak have provided a pragmatic view of two quite unique individuals - Louka and little Kolya - thrust together under circumstances neither controls.

Zdenek Sverak, as Louka, is portrayed, from the start, as a man who has little time or patience to deal with the needs of a small boy. The magic in the film is not how these two characters come to love and care for each other. It's in the realistic and practical way the two come to accept their situation, with the affection between them building slowly, but strongly.

Louka, is smart, opinionated (hence, his eviction from the prestigious Philharmonic ), attractive to women AND a confirmed bachelor. His dislike, almost loathing, of children comes out quickly and earnestly in the films beginning. The subsequent build of affection between Louka and his young ward has been done before, as in "Cinema Paradiso". Here, the bonding takes place in a predictable manner, but, with off-beat humor and a cultural edginess that sets it apart from the more sentimental fare. The chemistry between Chalimon and Sverak is apparent.

Andrej Chalimon, in his film debut as little Kolya, is a charming little boy who performs in a thoroughly believable manner. One amusing little bit has Kolya display his new-found knowledge of Czech via the psalm "The Lord is my shepherd".

The story approaches sentimentality, but doesn't give in to it. The melancholy ending, with the two main characters parting forever, keeps away from the typical "and they all lived happily together" ending. I appreciate this. Also, the social and political events of the time helps keep the background activity energetic and flowing. A very nice combination of personal and social commentary.

Art direction is subtle, with some clever little surprises in its style. Watch for a funny little bit involving Kolya and a puppet theater.

"Kolya" is a wonderful piece of filmmaking that deserves its nomination for Oscars Best Foreign Film. I give it an A-.

Laura LAURA:
"Kolya" tells a story that could have been relentessly dripping in sentamentality (and has inexplicably accused of that by some reviewers), but rises above that pitfall by casting the relationship of a womanizing Czech batchelor and an abandoned Russian boy against the Eastern European politics just prior to the Velvet Revolution.

In another family affair (see "Prisoner of the Mountains"), director Jan Sverak directs his dad, Zdenek Sverak, who also wrote the film's screenplay.

The film begins a little slowly, establishing Sverak as Frantisek Louka, a man trying to make ends meet after being kicked out of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra by playing at funerals at the city crematorium and picking up side jobs regilding letters on tombstones. He's a confirmed batchelor with no use for children who conducts a series of affairs with married women. When Louka's mother, who he also helps support, tells him the gutters on her house need replacing, Frantisek finally decides to make some real money by agreeing to marry a Russian woman so that she can get Czech papers. She promptly skips over the border to join a German lover leaving her six year old son Kolya (Andrej Chalimon) behind. The non-Russian speaking Louka ends up having to care for the non-Czech speaking Kolya and the story begins to soar.

Chalimon was found after an extensive casting search in Moscow kindergartens. He's a real screen presence who can tug at the heartstrings without being cloying. Sverak Jr. relays the innocence and vulnerability of children in a simple shot of Louka's large middle aged hands stuffing the stockinged feet of Kolya into a pair of children's print slippers.

At first, Louka gruffly drags Kolya around with him on his daily excursions. Louka must fact the truth, though, when he loses sight of Kolya on a crowded train while chatting up a woman and frantically searches the station for the boy. Kolya has to warm up to Louka, as well. In a hilarious scene, Louka practices his cello while Kolya entertains himself with a puppet theater Louka has found for him. As Kolya first hums, then begins singing "The Lord Is My Shepherd" (in Czech no less!), both we and Louka realize he's restaging a crematorium funeral on his puppet stage. Czech and Russian feelings are given a workout when the two scuffle over flags and Louka's mother rejects the little boy who delights in speaking with the Russian soldiers in the street. It's the cultural differences between the two that enrich the story and bring it to another level than a film like "Cinema Pardiso."

Louka looks to his lovers to help him care for Kolya. He has one read bedtime stories in Russian to Kolya over the phone. When Kolya becomes ill, the frantic Louka calls Klara, Libuse Safrankova (looking like a Slavic Diane Baker) who offers fine support as the married woman who loves Louka and has hiccups after great sex.

A bittersweet ending caps off this intelligently charming film.

A


THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD

is the true story of the bittersweet romance between Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio), creator of the "Conan the Barbarian" stories and Novalyne Price ("Jerry Maguire's" Renee Zellweger), a schoolteacher with writing asperations of her own in 1934 Texas. Fifty years later, Price wrote her first novel "One Who Walked Alone," which one of her students adapted for the screenplay of this film.

Howard was a strange man - a social outcast with an unhealthy attachment to his sickly mother. Price found much to love in Howard, but couldn't get him to commit to a conventional relatioship.

Robin ROBIN:
"The Whole Wide World" is a fair, but plain, piece of filmmaking. The total focus of the film is on the two principle characters, Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Novelyne Price (Renee Zellweger).

Zellweger, whos making a big slash in "Jerry Maguire", does a solid and intelligent job as Novelyne. She starts off a little tentative, but, as you watch her character develop and grow, Zellweger's acting ability become apparent . I can see why she was selected for "Maguire". She has good future prospects.

Vincent D'Onofrio gives a more studied performance that lacks the spontaneity of Zellweger's down-to-earth Novelyne. Hes effective, but affected.

The lack of real supporting characters hurts the film. After Howard and Price, there are, literally, no supporting characters, except Howard's Oedipal relationship with his mother, played by Ann Wedgeworth in a tough, almost thankless, role.

Direction is unexciting.

Effective use of sound helps several scenes where Howard is creating his characters for the pulps.

Editing is extremely laconic, with many scenes carried much longer than is necessary. A more, efficient use of scissors at the editing deck would have tightened "The Whole Wide World" immensely.

I'm impressed by Zellweger, appreciate D'Onofrio's talent, but I'm not taken by the film. Due mainly to Zellweger's performance, I give "The Whole Wide World" a C+.

Laura LAURA:
Renee Zellweger was discovered here for her role in "Jerry Maguire" and this proves she's the second most exciting newcomer of 1996 after Edward Norton. She's feisty as Novalyne Price, a woman not afraid to go after what she wants in 1934.

D'Onofrio plays Howard witha mixture of charm and grotesquery. He's the literal embodiment of the phrase 'a bull in a china shop.'

We're pulled into Howard's world with eerie sound effects. When Howard tells Price one of his Conan stories against a hay field, it's punctuated with the sound of a sword being stropped. In another scene, Price looks out of her schoolroom window to see Howard shadowboxing his way up the middle of the street to the startled looks of bystanders. When the camera goes in for a closeup of him, we hear his punches connecting.

Ann Wedgeworth is effective as Howard's still beautiful mother who's wasting away from an undisclosed illness while she does emotional battle with Price for her son's affections. While the film is ambiguous on the subject, an incestuous relationship is hinted at, particularly in a disturbing scene when Howard undresses his feverish mother to gently bath her.

First time director Dan Ireland (Co-founder and Co-director of the Seattle film festival) shows a sure hand in recreating small town Texas life of the 1930's.

"The Whole Wide World" is a refreshing love story in that it shows how two people could care for each other deeply, yet never find true meeting ground.


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