From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1993). Oddly enough, the version of this piece that’s available on the Reader‘s web site and (until recently) here is missing the final five paragraphs, which I’ve just restored by copying them from the printed version that I still have in one of my scrapbooks. — J.R.
THE MUSIC OF CHANCE
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Philip Haas
Written by Philip and Belinda Haas
With Mandy Patinkin, James Spader, M. Emmet Walsh, Charles Durning, Joel Grey, Samantha Mathis, and Christopher Penn.
In an interview included in his nonfiction collection The Art of Hunger, Paul Auster gives an intriguing account of the major influences on his novels — an account that suggests why these novels aren’t well suited to conventional movie adaptation:
“The greatest influence on my work has been fairy tales, the oral tradition of story-telling. The Brothers Grimm, the Thousand and One Nights — the kinds of stories you read out loud to children. These are bare-bone narratives, narratives largely devoid of details, yet enormous amounts of information are communicated in a very short space, with very few words. What fairy tales prove, I think, is that it’s the reader — or the listener — who actually tells the story to himself.… Read more »
A wonderful tearjerker about four young Chinese American women in San Francisco (Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamilyn Tomita, and Ming-Na Wen) and their Chinese immigrant mothers (Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, and France Nuyen). Adapted from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel by the author and Ron Bass, and directed by Wayne Wang, it is a story (or more precisely, four interwoven stories) told mainly in flashbacks. Wang, whose previous work has reflected the influence of both Ozu (Dim Sum) and Godard (Life Is Cheap), seems to have fallen under the spell of Mizoguchi here, and this model serves him well. At once fascinating for its detailed lore about Chinese customs and legacies and very moving in its realization, the film builds into a highly emotional epic about what it means to be both Chinese and American. Fine Arts.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The most impressive thing about Steven Soderbergh’s third feature (after sex, lies, and videotape and Kakfa) — an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s childhood memoirs, rich in period flavor — is that it’s set in Saint Louis in 1933, roughly three decades before Soderbergh was born, yet it offers a pungent and wholly believable portrait of what living through the Depression was like. Soderbergh gets an uncommonly good lead performance out of Jesse Bradford as the resourceful 12-year-old hero, living in a seedy hotel and steadily losing the members of his family: his kid brother (Cameron Boyd) gets shipped off to an uncle, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) to a sanitarium, and then his German father (Jeroen Krabbe) goes off to try to make money as a door-to-door watch salesman. We also learn a fair amount about the hero’s neighbors (Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody) and schoolmates, and Soderbergh does a fine job of keeping us interested and engaged without stooping to sentimentality. This is a lovely piece of work. Fine Arts.
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From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The least known, though far from least interesting, of producer Val Lewton’s exemplary, poetic B-films, this was withdrawn from circulation for nearly half a century due to an unjust plagiarism suit that Lewton had the misfortune to lose. Like many of Lewton’s best efforts (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man), this is a taut thriller promising fantasy in its title but offering a dark look at human psychology that becomes even more disturbing through what’s left to the viewer’s imagination. The plot concerns a young third mate (Russell Wade) on a cargo ship who’s befriended by a lonely captain (Richard Dix), whom he gradually discovers is a disturbed tyrant with little of the self-confidence he initially shows — a cracked father figure whose crew is mysteriously loyal in spite of his weaknesses. Like Lewton’s other early pictures, it’s carefully scripted (by Donald Henderson Clarke), efficiently directed (by Mark Robson), and evocatively shot (by Nicholas Musuraca). This 1943 “second feature” boasts a large and well-defined cast of characters and a very involved plot, though it lasts only about 70 minutes — there’s scarcely a wasted motion, a bracing object lesson to nearly all feature makers today.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.
Originally known in French as Jacquot de Nantes, this is a loving and lovely reenactment of the wonderful French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s childhood in Nantes, made by his wife Agnes Varda while Demy was dying of AIDS. Brief glimpses of Demy’s movies and Demy himself are craftily woven in to show us how his mainly happy childhood and his early efforts as a filmmaker and animator tended to nourish all his subsequent work. He brought an enchanted fairy-tale sensibility to such features as Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Donkey Skin, and Varda does a fine job of showing the roots of this work without succumbing to easy sentimentality. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.
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Not surprisingly, this 1961 epic about the Spanish national hero, the Castilian warrior Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, is often static as drama (with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren used mainly as icons) and pretty dubious as history. But thanks to Anthony Mann’s splendid eye for landscape, composition, and spectacle–in particular his striking use of the edges of the ‘Scope frame, a facet (among others) that is totally lost on TV and video–this is a rousing and often stirring show. Scripted by Frederic M. Frank and Philip Yordan, scored by Miklos Rozsa, and costarring Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, and Herbert Lom, the film has been rereleased under the auspices of Martin Scorsese. It runs about three hours, and there is an intermission two-thirds of the way through. Fine Arts.… Read more »
A subtitled print of the fascinating German-language version of Greta Garbo’s first talkie (1930), shot at the same time and on the same MGM sets as the more familiar English version of the Eugene O’Neill play–a procedure carried out with several other pictures during this period, before dubbing was invented. The German version has a different director (Jacques Feyder instead of Clarence Brown) and a different supporting cast (Hans Junkermann, Theo Ball, and Salka Viertel instead of Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, and Marie Dressler). The film is something of a relic in both versions–with periodic cuts from long shots in sharp focus to close-ups of Garbo in soft focus, and O’Neill’s lifelong obsession with alcoholic male carousers and their suffering, neglected women getting full play. But Garbo is electrifying, and, if memory serves, she may actually be a little tougher and more soulful in the German version. See both versions back-to-back (as you can on Wednesday) and decide for yourself. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.… Read more »
A pretty good German comedy by Helmut Dietl, nominated for an Oscar, that satirizes Germany’s relation to its Nazi past, with particular reference to the Hitler diaries hoax. It chronicles the exploits of a charlatan who starts out as an art forger, then takes up counterfeiting Nazi relics, including Hitler’s diaries and even his (and Eva Braun’s) ashes, in collusion with a puffed-up, greedy Hamburg journalist who’s restoring one of Goring’s ships and romancing one of his nieces. The title is a nonsense word derived from Chaplin’s splutters in The Great Dictator; the tone is cheerfully irreverent, though this is hardly a patch on The Nasty Girl. (JR)… Read more »
Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s reductive, relatively conformist version of the Kaufman and Hart farce about an eccentric family (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington) coming into contact with a rich one (Edward Arnold, Mary Forbes, James Stewart) won best-picture and best-director Oscars in 1938. There are still some laughs and entertainment to be found here, but forget about fidelity to the original. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »
An Iranian comedy (1991) by Dariush Farhang about the complications and disasters that ensue when an Iranian director, played by Farhang himself, tries to shoot an American-style action picture. His lead actor refuses to perform a stunt, then becomes injured, reducing the director to finding a slum dweller who resembles him in order to complete the picture. Some of this is funny, but too much comes across as the kind of slick, soulless filmmaking the movie professes to parody. (JR)… Read more »
Tony Scott (Top Gun) directs a Quentin Tarantino script about a couple (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette) fleeing from Detroit to Los Angeles with the mob and the police after them (1993). There’s plenty of pizzazz on view but not always a lot of sense; as usual, Tarantino’s sense of fun is infectious but fairly heartless (as in the easy way the movie shrugs off the courageous death of Slater’s father, a former cop played by Dennis Hopper), and Scott’s direction is slick but mechanical, which pretty much seems what’s called for. With Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)… Read more »
I’ve never encountered the poetry of Romanian expatriate writer Andrei Codrescu or his contributions to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I hope I never have to after seeing this 1992 documentary produced and directed by Roger Weisberg, which follows Codrescu as he drives across the U.S., spouting cliches whenever he can’t find a religious cultist or gun freak or McDonald’s executive to spout them for him. The narrative’s jocular, superficial tone becomes insufferable once it’s apparent that no subject is going to be accorded anything more than a cutesy one-liner. Whatever the limitations of Sherman’s March and Roger & Me, they at least offered some food for thought along with the self-congratulation; this offers little more than smarmy joke cues and poetic platitudes. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1993). — J.R.
An entertaining if somewhat uneven departure by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this 1992 film can be regarded in part as a kind of peace offering to the Iranian government after the banning of his two previous features. A fantasy about the birth of Iranian cinema, full of whimsical special effects and wacky magical-realism conceits, it’s centered on an early cinematographer (Mehdi Hashemi) — modeled loosely and rather awkwardly on Chaplin’s tramp figure — who introduces movies to the Persian court, gradually winning over the shah (Ezatollah Entezami) after the ruler falls for an actress (Fatemeh Motamed Aria, literally dropping from the screen into the palace). Quirkily inventive and unpredictable, the film concludes with a sentimental anthology of clips celebrating the history of Iranian cinema that calls to mind Oscar night; before this, much more interesting use is made of a silent film identified by Makhmalbaf as the first Iranian movie, Ebrahim Khan’s Hajagha, the Film Actor. In Farsi with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)
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Though it eliminates most of the first chapter and sweetens the ending, this is a fairly literal adaptation (1993) by documentary filmmaker Philip Haas (Money Man) of Paul Auster’s allegorical, parablelike novel about the nature of freedom, scripted with Haas’s wife, film editor Belinda Haas. A former fireman and drifter (Mandy Patinkin) stakes a professional poker player (James Spader) in a game with two eccentric millionaires (Charles Durning and Joel Grey); after going bust the drifter and poker player wind up building a stone wall across a meadow to work off their debts. The acting is engaging and resourceful (Spader and M. Emmet Walsh as a foreman are standouts), but the translation of this highly literary tale into something cinematic never quite takes place; with Samantha Mathis. (JR)… Read more »
A brash and sprightly Canadian comedy about Indian emigres in Toronto, with musical numbers, erotic dream sequences, exploding airplanes, a blue-skinned Hindu deity who exists mainly on video, a fair amount of farce, and a great deal of satire. In his first feature the young writer-director-star Srinivas Krishna seems less comfortable as an actor than as a filmmaker, but he coaxes rich performances from Saeed Jaffrey, who plays three separate parts (including the Hindu deity), and otherwise keeps things hopping; with Sakina Jaffrey (Saeed’s daughter) and Zohra Segal (1991). (JR)… Read more »