From the Chicago Reader (September 25, 1992). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Tim Robbins
With Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Gore Vidal, Alan Rickman, Bob Balaban, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, James Spader, and Fred Ward.
With Unforgiven unexpectedly topping the box office charts and Bush bashing so popular now that even my favorite comic book, USA Today, seems to do it daily, this appears to be the season of demystification. But I wonder how far the public is prepared to take this process. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival four months ago, I’ve been looking forward to Tim Robbins’s directorial debut, described as an unbridled attack on the Republican glibness and greed of the past dozen years. Clearly the climate is ripe for some good old-fashioned muckraking. But how much of this involves a genuine change in national perception, and how much is it a merely seasonal media construction? As pleased as I am at the media’s apparent recognition of some of Bush’s crimes, it’s hard for me to understand how this squares with the media’s former position that these crimes never took place (as with Iran-contra) or didn’t matter (as with the savings-and-loan scandal) or were heroic deeds showing both restraint and maturity (as with the slaughter in the Persian Gulf).… Read more »
A former archaeologist and forger of relics (Barton Fink’s David Warrilow), awaiting the arrival of a former colleague (film critic Berenice Reynaud), revises the story he plans to tell her about the disappearance of a Mayan hieroglyphic tablet from an excavation in the Yucatan many years before. Writer-director Leandro Katz, an Argentinean now based in New York, has been making experimental shorts since the 70s, but this ambitious and daunting first feature represents a fresh and exciting departure. A metaphysical puzzler that suggests at times a novella by Adolfo Bioy-Casares adapted by Alain Resnais, it straddles the space between memory and fantasy, often suggesting a Victorian fever dream. You might find the proceedings a bit heavy and dry in spots, but the verbal and filmic quotes from Dreyer’s Vampyr are far from superfluous–this film too is conceived as a series of teasing question marks. With Stefan Brecht and Andrew Sharp; the haunting score is by David Darling. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, September 19, 8:00, 281-8788) … Read more »
A rather brilliant if overloaded pseudodocumentary satire in the mode of Real Life and This Is Spinal Tap, Tim Robbins’s first feature as writer-director is an angry catalog of recent media abuses in the realm of politics. (Properly speaking, there are no real characters here, only types and images, which is part of the point.) Robbins plays a folksinging Pennsylvania conservative running for the U.S. Senate against fuddy-duddy liberal incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) shortly before the Persian Gulf war. While it’s certainly true, as most reviewers have been claiming, that this movie does a devastating job on Reagan and Bush’s values and corruption, it offers an equally sharp critique of various liberal politicians. (Robbins may believe everything Paiste says, but even the lampoonish name shows that we’re not supposed to take him entirely straight, and Vidal’s bow ties and improvised oratory add immeasurably to the parody.) The functioning of media itself is Robbins’s true subject, and it’s exciting to see him appropriating some of the ideas of his mentor Robert Altman and giving them more bite than Altman ever did (not only in Tanner ’88 and The Player, but also in Nashville). Robbins is attempting too much here, but the 70 percent or so that he brings off borders at times on the breathtaking.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1992). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Written by Robinson, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes
With Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Timothy Busfield, George Hearn, Eddie Jones, and Stephen Tobolowsky.
Although Sneakers has plenty of artful craft, the principal pleasure of Phil Alden Robinson’s new feature has less to do with art than it does with old-fashioned entertainment. Robinson, you may recall, wrote and directed In the Mood (1987) and the much more successful and better known Field of Dreams (1989), two movies whose basic appeal was founded in nostalgia. Though everything after the prologue and credits in Sneakers is set in the present, the movie reminds us of what movie entertainment used to be about, especially during the 50s and 60s, before inflated ideas about art and significance took over. (I suspect that many of the movie’s high-tech details come from producers and cowriters Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, who together wrote the script of WarGames.)
Sneakers can be described in many ways: as a caper movie, a lightweight thriller, a high-tech fairy tale, a boys’ adventure, or a Hitchcockian jaunt dating back to the period before Hitchcock was regarded as a serious metaphysical artist — that is, either before he left England for Hollywood or up to the time he made North by Northwest, but in any case before the weighty French interpretations of his thrillers became coin of the realm.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1992). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Paul Schrader
With Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Jane Adams, Paul Jabara, and Robert Cicchini.
The French New Wave of the 60s offers many examples of film critics of some substance who became filmmakers — among them Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. But the commercial American cinema of the 70s offers us only one, Paul Schrader (the only other contender, Peter Bogdanovich, was by his own admission more of a reporter and interviewer than critic before he turned to filmmaking). Yet Schrader has not made a wholly satisfactory transition. As a writer he made his mark on several important features — including Taxi Driver, Obsession, Raging Bull, and (in a minor way, not credited) Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But his career as a director, despite some steady improvement in craft, strikes me as one of the depressing phenomena of the New Hollywood: he’s produced a series of tacky, offensive films that have gained some intellectual and critical respectability only because most critics haven’t been willing to examine them closely.… Read more »
A highly distinguished and immensely enjoyable selection of 13 Warner Brothers cartoons made between 1948 and 1956, 9 of them by Chuck Jones. Leading off the program is Lumberjack Rabbit (1953), the only Warners cartoon in 3-D, and more a curiosity than a classic. The eyepoppers include two masterpieces of the same year, the modernist Duck Amuck and the wildly futurist Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century, as well as one of the most beautiful Road Runner cartoons (the 1956 Gee Whiz-z-z-z), a Tweety Pie cartoon in which Sylvester loses all nine of his lives (Friz Freleng’s Satan’s Waitin’, 1954), and two hilarious character items from 1951, one starring the underrated Foghorn Leghorn (Robert McKimson’s Leghorn Swoggled), the other featuring the Three Bears on Father’s Day (A Bear for Punishment). There’s also Freleng’s pretty good Curtain Razor (1949), a Porky Pig version of Broadway Danny Rose before the fact. The others are simply OK: Freleng’s Hare Do (1948), Bully for Bugs (1953), Feed the Kitty (1952), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), and One Froggy Evening (1955). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 4 through 10) … Read more »
Far and away the best SF movie of the 80s, Ridley Scott’s visionary look at Los Angeles in the year 2019a singular blend of grime and glitter that captures both the horror and the allure of Reagan-era capitalism with the claustrophobic textures of a Sternberg filmwas a critical and commercial flop when it first appeared (1982). Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film follows the hero (Harrison Ford) as he tracks down and kills replicants, or androids. Much of the film’s erotic charge and moral and ideological ambiguity stems from the fact that these characters are very nearly the only ones we care about. (We never know for sure whether the hero is a replicant himself; in the director’s cut version that uncertainty is even greater.) The grafting of 40s hard-boiled detective story with SF thriller creates some dysfunctional overlaps, and the movie loses some force whenever violence takes over, yet this remains a truly extraordinary, densely imagined version of both the future and the present, with a look and taste all its own. With Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, and William J. Sanderson. R, 112 min. (JR)… Read more »
Robert Redford plays a 60s radical hired to penetrate and test security systems with an eccentric team of expertsincluding a CIA veteran (Sidney Poitier), a computer whiz (River Phoenix), a gadget man (Dan Aykroyd), and a blind audio expert (David Strathairn). Forced to participate in a covert operation, they wind up enlisting the hero’s former girlfriend (Mary McDonnell) and matching wits with a friend of his from college (Ben Kingsley). It’s questionable whether this 1992 caper movie and thriller by Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson (with help from producers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, who collaborated with Robinson on the script) is art, but it’s certainly well-crafted entertainment on a very high level, full of humor and character and with nice election-year running gags. Recommended. 125 min. (JR)… Read more »
A working-class Jew from Scranton (Brendan Fraser) gets a football scholarship to an exclusive boys school in rural Massachusetts in 1955, and finds himself confronted by anti-Semitism. Produced by the calculating and often ideologically crass Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe (Fatal Attraction, Black Rain, The Accused), and directed by Robert Mandel from a script by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan, this is a bewildering mixture of fairly accomplished storytelling (I enjoyed it more than Dead Poets Society, which isn’t saying a lot), awkward contrivances in the script, and lies in the overall conception so egregious they undercut any pretensions the film might have to social seriousness. By far the worst of these lies is the notion that being Jewish at an expensive prep school is difficult in a way being working-class is not. (The film tells us again and again, with a kind of compulsion that seems demented, that class bias is not only inconsequential and unrelated to prejudice but nonexistent.) With Chris O’Donnell, Andrew Lowery, Matt Damon, Randall Batinkoff, Amy Locane, Peter Donat, Ed Lauter, and Kevin Tighe. (JR)… Read more »
A 1992 movie version of Mbongeni Ngema’s inspirational stage musical about the struggle of Soweto high school students against apartheid, starring Whoopi Goldberg as a progressive teacher and Leleti Khumalo as the title heroine, one of her pupils. Apart from functioning as a rudimentary history lesson, this basically aims at uplift more than edification, and does a pretty good job of it. With Miriam Makeba, John Kani, and Dumisani Dlamini; directed by Darrell James Roodt, and filmed on location in South Africa. PG-13, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »
James Benning’s 1991 experimental feature, an account of a cross-country motorbike trip with continuously moving narrative subtitles that are most often either ahead of or behind the images. Difficult to digest as a whole but fascinating to grapple with, this film is rich with memories, political reflections, portraits of friends and family members, and comments on what’s been happening to this country. I wanted it to be a film of one-night stands, Benning has said, a statement that’s borne out by the dislocations and discontinuitiesas well as the locations and continuities, which include both flashbacks and flash-forwards. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »
Woody Allen returns to his Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters mode, albeit with many fewer laughs and a completely different filmmaking stylewhich just goes to show how superficial his style usually is. The story concerns the vicissitudes of two married couples who are friends (Allen and Mia Farrow play one couple, Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis the other), and the pseudodocumentary style, which occasionally suggests certain aspects of 60s Godard, includes handheld camera movements, many jump cuts, monaural direct sound, and interviews with most of the major characters by an offscreen narrator (Jeffrey Kurland). Allen’s conception of character is as banal and shallow as ever, but the lively performances of some of his actorsmainly Davis, Pollack, and Juliette Lewis (as a creative writing student of Allen’s who has a brief flirtation with him)and the novelty of the film’s style make this more watchable than many of his features. With Liam Neeson, Blythe Danner, Lysette Anthony, Cristi Conaway, and in a cameo, fiction writer Bruce Jay Friedman (1991). (JR)… Read more »
If you liked the demystification of the hero in Unforgiven, you might enjoy this comedy with the same general theme written by the same screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, from a story he authored with Laura Ziskin and Alvin Sargent, directed with appropriate speed and cynicism by Stephen Frears. A small-time crook (Dustin Hoffman) on his way to the clink saves the lives of 54 passengers trapped inside a crashed plane, and a homeless derelict (Andy Garcia) decides to impersonate him in order to collect a million-dollar reward. Basically this is enjoyable Capracorn with a few dashes of Preston Sturgesthree parts Meet John Doe (with Geena Davis taking over the Barbara Stanwyck part of caustic star reporter) to two parts Hail the Conquering Heroand Hoffman extracts all the juicy ham he can out of it. The scattershot satire about the media suffers from overkill (though Chevy Chase is effective in an unbilled part as a hard-nosed editor), the movie as a whole has a slightly archaic feel (not surprising inasmuch as it’s largely built on situations and characters half a century old), and in spots there’s an irritating sentimentality and complacency about its own attack on sentimentality and complacency. But the basic messagethat heroism is a kind of role-playing created by the media for the gulliblecertainly comes across, and there’s lots of fun as well as bitter wisdom extracted from the premise.… Read more »
An uptight junior executive (Bill Paxton) moves into a new home, and either he’s being driven out of his mind by a grotesque vagrant (Marshall Bell) or he’s blanking out and committing horrible murders while he’s unconscious. Unfortunately, Chris Walas’s direction of this Richard Jefferies script is so ham-fisted and hysterical that we aren’t likely to care even when we find out. With Michael Ironside, Mitzi Kapture, Colleen Camp, Patrika Darbo, Stuart Pankin, and Teddy Wilson. (JR)… Read more »
Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1991 film, set in Warsaw in 1939, stars Crispin Glover as a 30-year-old who suddenly starts being treated by those around himhis former professor, a nymphet, a female cousinas if he had regressed back to childhood. Closer to a curiosity than to a successthe English dialogue and the period Polish setting make for an odd mesh at timesbut a curiosity by Skolimowski certainly isn’t like anyone else’s. (JR)… Read more »