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Lone Star

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

I highly recommend this wonderful film that I saw recently at the press screening. The film starts locally this coming Friday (June 21) at the Camera One Cinema in San Jose.

LONE STAR is the latest film from the great writer and director John Sayles (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, MATEWAN, EIGHT MEN OUT, CITY OF HOPE, PASSION FISH and THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH among others). Sayles's pictures are always bursting with humanity. The scripts are intelligent and his films are rich with talented actors. He manages to find excellent although usually lessor known actors to play even the most minor roles. LONE STAR is one of the high points of his body of work. Every member of the cast delivers a heartfelt performance.

LONE STAR has at its core a 40 year old murder mystery that rears its ugly head to confront and trouble the multiracial town of Eagle Pass in Rio County on the Texas and Mexican border. Although the solving of the mystery provides an effect glue to keep the story together, the movie is actually three parallel stories about the local history of people of Anglo, African and Mexican ancestry. These groups are even more fragmented into some that are soldiers and others that are illegal aliens.

As the story opens, two soldiers, Cliff (Stephen Mendillo) and Mikey (Stephen Lang), find a skull. When new Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) arrives, he is not sure what it means, reflecting, "No telling yet if there's been a crime, but this country's seen a fair amount of disagreements over the years."

The locals are not impressed with their sheriff. They say "he is all hat and no cattle." They still remember his father Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who was beloved by all racial groups and believed to be the best sheriff there ever was. Sam has a limited view of his role in life declaring, "I'm just a jailer. I run a 60 room hotel with bars on the windows." As John Sayles says in the press kit, "Just as the legend of the Alamo has helped to define Texas, so has the legend of Buddy Deeds defined his son Sam."

The best thing Buddy did was run the racist, evil, and corrupt previous sheriff Charley Wadd (Kris Kristofferson) out of town and then get his position as sheriff of Rio County. Since Charley has never been heard of in 40 years and since the skull is about that old, the narrative drive in the movie surrounds whether there could have been foul play back then. This mystery works really well, but it is not the best part of the picture nor the centerpiece. All of the acting by all of the wonderful characters we get to meet is the reason to see the film.

The best performance is the reserved and lonely one by Chris Cooper as Sam. One bartender tells him, "I'm clever as the next guy." Sam looks at him real serious and says, "If the next guy is a redneck." Sam's ex-girlfriend from high school, Pilar Cruz, is played simply but effectively by Elizabeth Pena. Pilar's mom Mercedes (Miriam Colon) is a first generation Mexican-American and is one of the biggest racist in the show. She detests illegal aliens and generally treats poor Mexican-Americans like dirt. As a one-dimensional bad guy, Kris Kristofferson is perfect.

The blacks in the story have two role models. One is Otis Payne (Ron Canada) who runs the local bar where the blacks have hung out for years. Canada is great as an old sage who is somehow connected to the mysteries from the past. His philosophy is "It's not like there's a line between the good people and the bad people. It is not like you're one or the other." One of my favorite philosophers from the show is an Indian who runs an obscure little shop on a dusty road. He tells Sam, "This stretch of road runs between nowhere and not much else."

Otis's grown up son Delmore is played by Joe Morton (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, OF MICE AND MEN, and SPEED among others). Delmore has just arrived as the leader of the military base near the town. Otis and he are estranged, and when they meet, Otis says of him contemptuously that he had heard that "Colonel Payne is a real hard case. A spit and polish man."

Sayles's script is naturally funny in a low key fashion. It is also full of poignancy. So many scenes are special, but two of my favorites are a slow dancing scene that is lovingly photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, and the other is of the abandoned drive-in theater where Sam and Pilar used to make out.

The wonderful music (Mason Daring) runs from twangy mysterious melodies to nostalgic Mexican songs. As a native Texan, I liked the way the accents were realistic. Too often filmmakers overdo Southern accents. Certainly some locals have thick accents, but not all. The sets (Dan Bishop) are typical Texas hokey right down to the gun stocks that are used as draft beer handles at the bar.

Perhaps my favorite technical aspect of the film is the editing, also by Sayles. Many scenes would move 40 years with just a pan and without any cuts. This was a perfect way to show how the present is just an extension of the past; they are one.

Finally, look for Frances McDormand, the star of FARGO, who plays Sam's ex-wife Bunny. She again demonstrates her wide range of acting talent. Here she is a hyperactive sports junkie of all things. What a change from her role in FARGO as a laid back pregnant detective.

LONE STAR runs a full 2:15, but given the time it spends delving into the lives of so many people and many racial communities, this feels short if anything. The film is rated R. There is a little sex, no nudity, and a little violence. I thought it should have been PG-13. Perhaps they used the F word a few times, and I missed it. At any rate, I think it would be fine for kids 10 and up. I strongly recommend this wonderful, insightful, and heartwarming film to you and award it *** 1/2.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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