Monthly Archives: May 1993

Red Tape [THE STORY OF QIU JU]

From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 1993). — J.R.

THE STORY OF QIU JU

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Liu Pei Qi, Ge Zhi Jun, and Yang Liu Chun.

For a comedy that takes bureaucratic negotiation as one of its overriding themes, Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju has negotiated quite a bit for its director from the Chinese government, bureaucracy and all. This is only one of the film’s many ironies. Another is that in the course of showing us much more of China’s particularity than ever before Zhang has realized his most universal and accessible film to date, offering a virtual reproach to the artiness of its predecessors.

Until this feature was made, Zhang’s previous two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both huge international successes, were banned in China. Zhang was widely regarded as both a dissident and a scandalous figure, thanks to his adulterous relationship with his leading lady, Gong Li (who has played in all five of his features), which was given much publicity in abusive newspaper articles under the byline of his estranged wife. At least one semireliable commentator thinks it may have been this scandal more than the political meanings of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (dramas about the persistence of Chinese feudalism set in the early part of this century) that led to their suppression.… Read more »

Much Ado About Nothing

Kenneth Branagh’s second attempt (after Henry V) to popularize Shakespeare for the screen yields his best movie to date–not especially interesting as art perhaps, but a smashing piece of entertainment. The comedy has been cut and deprived of its urban setting so that the whole thing could be shot in and around a 14th-century Tuscan villa, but the trade-off seems worth it, and most of the cast shines: I especially enjoyed Michael Keaton’s outrageous mugging as Constable Dogberry. Denzel Washington is sufficiently elegant as Don Pedro to enable one to forget his American accent most of the time. If Branagh himself as Benedick is the price we have to pay to get the resourceful Emma Thompson (his wife and regular costar) as Beatrice, they’re both more at home here than Keanu Reeves as Don John. Their separate soliloquies are effectively staged like recitatives in a musical, and their sparring dialogues are somewhat evocative of Kiss Me Kate. If you appreciate the effort to make Shakespeare comprehensible, the high spirits, sensual trappings, and juicy language of this buoyant, handsome production are pretty contagious. Fine Arts.… Read more »

Family Values and Mass Murder

This appeared in the May 21, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

STAR TIME

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alexander Cassini

With Michael St. Gerard, John P. Ryan, Maureen Teefy, and Thomas Newman.

I doubt that any current media buzz term is more ideologically polluted than “family values.” Even its alternative, “suitable for the whole family,” doesn’t contain the same puritanical lies. The egregious false assumptions built into this phrase as it’s now used are breathtaking: that families are all alike when it comes to their values; that these shared values are somehow independent of — and therefore free of — the sex and violence purveyed by Hollywood movies (“sex and violence” invariably viewed as an irreducible entity that also mysteriously includes profanity); and that, because they eschew sex and violence, “family values” are uniformly good and healthy. These assumptions seem predicated on the notion that everything bad that happens in society necessarily occurs outside the home, on the streets. Never mind that statistics show that an inordinate amount of lethal violence occurs during national holidays, in homes, between family members; this is factored out of the discussion along with the inconvenient fact that babies (and therefore families) are generated by sex, not storks.… Read more »

Blackmail

Contrary to what’s suggested in the Film Center’s Gazette, the version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 masterpiece being shown is not his first sound picture, but the film that immediately preceded it, his last silent. (Both versions follow the plight of a murderer caught between her blackmailer and her boyfriend, an investigating detective.) For all the experimental interest of the sound version (the first full-length talkie released in England), this recently uncovered silent version, which hasn’t been seen anywhere in more than 60 years, is the more fluid and accomplished of the two. Apart from two suspenseful set pieces–an attempted date rape in an artist’s studio that ends with the murder of the artist-rapist, and a chase through the British Museum, Hitchcock’s first giddy desecration of a national monument–what most impresses here is the masterful movement back and forth between subjective and objective modes of story telling, as well as the pungent uses of diverse London settings. As someone who’s always preferred Lang’s treatment of serial killers to Hitchcock’s, I would opt for this thriller over the much better known The Lodger as Hitchcock’s best silent picture, rivaled only by his less characteristic but formally inventive The Ring. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown; David Drazin will provide piano accompaniment.… Read more »

Utz

A likable minor-key effort about a Czech baron (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who collects porcelain figures, adapted by Hugh Whitemore from a novel by Bruce Chatwin and directed by George Sluizer (the Dutch filmmaker best known for The Vanishing and its U.S. remake). This British-German production, with effective secondary performances by Paul Scofield, Brenda Fricker, and Local Hero’s Peter Riegert, is partially a wry satiric look at Eastern Euopean communism and partially an exercise in fragmented story telling. It shows a fair amount of wit and restraint in both departments and qualifies as civilized entertainment, if not much more. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 14 through 20.… Read more »

Number 17

A peculiar and neglected early Hitchcock stage adaptation (1932), notable because it was intended partly as an absurdist send-up and none of the contemporary reviewers got the point. (The opening sequence suggests a kind of delirium of continuity that the picture periodically returns to.) Most of the film is set in an abandoned house, where enjoyably murky intrigues abound, and the last ten minutes feature a chase sequence with miniatures that is almost as much fun. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, May 14, 7:45, 443-3737.… Read more »

8 1/2

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

8 1_2-car

8 1_2 leg

If what you know about this exuberant, self-regarding movie comes from its countless inferior imitations (from Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and The Pickle to Allen’s Stardust Memories to Fosse’s All That Jazz), you owe it to yourself to see Federico Fellini’s exhilarating, stocktaking original — an expressionist, circuslike comedy about the complex mental and social life of a big-time filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck for a subject and the busy world surrounding him. It’s Fellini’s last black-and-white picture, and conceivably the most gorgeous and inventive thing he’s ever made — certainly more fun than anything he’s made since. (The only other Fellini movie that’s about as pleasurable would be The White Sheik.) With Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimee (1963). A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 7 through 13.

8 1:2

8 1_2-womenRead more »

Lies and Death

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

DAVE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

Written by Gary Ross

With Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames, and Ben Kingsley

SILVERLAKE LIFE: THE VIEW FROM HERE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman

With Tom Joslin, Mark Massi, Charles and Mary Joslin, Whitey and Sue Joslin, and Lois Black Hill.

Is it the prime purpose of every movie we want to see to tell us comforting lies? On some level I suspect it is, and paradoxically this may be the case even with pictures that supposedly break through reassuring deceptions to give us the unvarnished truth. One way or another, even the best of films tend to deceive us about certain matters — and if they didn’t, we probably wouldn’t give them the time of day.

The two recent examples I have in mind are in other respects about as different as movies can be. With a skillful piece of Hollywood pastry like Dave, an Ivan Reitman comedy about a small-time businessman named Dave (Kevin Kline) impersonating the U.S. president (Kline as well), one might at first be drawn in by its refreshing candor about the ignobility of the office of president.… Read more »

Emma and Elvis

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

This entertaining first fiction feature of Julia Reichert (Union Maids) is at least 25 times better than The Pickle in making a filmmaker’s creative/mid-life crisis meaningful, engaging, and interesting — so the fact that it’s taken two years for this enjoyable independent movie to open here (and at Facets rather than, say, Water Tower) must have more to do with the vanity of cock-waving industry honchos than with the needs of ordinary spectators like you and me. The filmmaker is a married woman (Kathryn Walker) in Dayton, Ohio, who’s bogged down in a documentary about the 60s counterculture. She becomes involved with a bitter, disaffected cable-access video artist in his 20s (Jason Duchin), which creates an ongoing dialogue between 60s and contemporary approaches to political protest — particularly when both characters become involved with a local censorship issue involving a gay activist with AIDS. The story is set in spring 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests, and all the characters are fresh and unpredictable. The film-within-a-film features interviews about the 60s with Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, David Horowitz, Greil Marcus, and Holly Near. Mark Blum is effective as the filmmaker’s neglected husband; Steven Bognar and Martin M.… Read more »

Correction

To the editors:

Contrary to what I wrote in my review of My New Gun (April 30), the film’s distributor is I.R.S. Media, not Fine Line. My apologies for the error.

Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

Sliver

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.

sliver

Basic Instinct‘s Sharon Stone and that film’s screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, reunite in a much less dynamic, erotic, and suspenseful thriller, this one about voyeurism rather than bondage (1993). It’s an adaptation of an Ira Levin novel about a shy Manhattan editor (Stone) who moves into an upscale apartment where the last tenant, whom she resembles, was murdered. She attracts the romantic interest of two neighbors — a successful crime writer (Tom Berenger) and a younger man (William Baldwin) who owns the building. Despite misleading flackery about this being somehow like Rear Window, it’s actually a high-tech rip-off of various notions and even shots from the lesser-known The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang’s last film, about a hotel whose every room conceals a hidden TV camera. (In fact, this hasn’t a hint of the sexiness, style, or conceptual brilliance of either film.) Stone tries to prove she can act but only demonstrates that she can give good close-up; the script is full of holes and red herrings; and the direction of Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games), who probably was hampered by producer Robert Evans and preview audiences breathing down his neck, never achieves much authority or coherence.… Read more »

The Story Of Qiu Ju

Zhang Yimou shifts gears from the upper-class formalism and cloistered period settings of his Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern with this 1992 comedy about a pregnant farm wife (Gong Li) taking on the government bureaucracy after her husband is injured in an altercation with the village chief. Shot mainly with hidden cameras and nonprofessional actors (including government bureaucrats), this may contain more casual information about everyday life in China than all the other Chinese movies distributed in this country combined; it’s also an adroit piece of storytelling and mise-en-scene that shows at least as much of Zhang’s directorial talent as his previous features. Screenwriter Liu Heng freely adapts a novel by Chen Yuan Bin, shifting its setting from southern China to a region in the north where Zhang himself grew up. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Star Time

An exceedingly odd first feature by writer-director-producer Alexander Cassini about an infantile young man (Young Elvis’s Michael St. Gerard) who’s lured away from committing suicide after his favorite TV sitcom is canceled by a fatherly show-biz type (John P. Ryan) who persuades him that he can become a TV star by committing gratuitous mass murders. A more maternal and law-abiding response is provided by a social worker (Maureen Teefy). Played half as arty allegory, half as satiric comedy, and generally as some species of midnight madness, this gaga independent item is most daring in refusing to focus on the violence that’s its subject, while getting us to think plenty about what it means. Recommended (1992). (JR)… Read more »

Sodom And Gomorrah

Directed by Robert Aldrich in Italy in 1962, this isn’t really as awful or as campy as you might expect, but it’s not exactly a masterpiece either. Stewart Granger, Pier Angeli, Stanley Baker, Anouk Aimee, and Rossana Podesta all do what they can in elaborate settings meant to suggest the biblical cities of sin. (JR)… Read more »

The Skin Game

A rather stagy and creaky early talkie (1931) by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from a John Galsworthy play; with Jill Esmond, Laurence Olivier’s first wife, and Edmund Gwenn, who later worked with Hitchcock on Waltzes From Vienna, Foreign Correspondent, and The Trouble With Harry. (JR)… Read more »