Daily Archives: November 1, 1993

The Story Of A Cheat

Widely regarded as Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece (though I’d place it below The Pearls of the Crown), this 1936 tour de force can be regarded as a kind of concerto for the writer-director-performer’s special brand of brittle cleverness. After a credits sequence that introduces us to the film’s cast and crew, Guitry settles into a flashback account of how the title hero learned to benefit from cheating over the course of his life. A notoriously anticinematic cineaste whose first love was theater, Guitry nevertheless had a flair for cinematic high jinks when it came to adapting his plays (or in this case a novel) to film, and most of this movie registers as a rather lively and stylishly inventive silent film, with Guitry’s character serving as offscreen lecturer. Francois Truffaut was sufficiently impressed to dub Guitry a French brother of Lubitsch, though Guitry clearly differs from this master of continental romance in that his own personality invariably overwhelms his characters. In French with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wittgenstein

This Brechtian biopic (1993, 75 min.) by the English filmmaker Derek Jarman about Ludwig Wittgenstein encompasses everything from the philosopher’s pampered childhood to his friendships with Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes and his relationships with rough young men. This is quite probably the best of Jarman’s narrative features, presented in a series of spare but powerful tableauxbeautifully and thoughtfully designed, like Joseph Cornell boxes with black backgrounds. With Karl Johnson, Michael Gough, and Tilda Swinton. (JR)… Read more »

We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story

There’s loads of imagination and energy (if not much taste) in this hyperventilated Spielberg-produced animated feature (1993) — probably too much for the 72-minute running time, inasmuch as characters, settings, and plot situations are sideswiped rather than introduced or developed. (It’s probably a market strategy: selling toys and other products derived from the movie is probably easier if kids feel they’re not getting enough the first time around.) Some prehistoric beasts are visited by a flying saucer, fed brain grain, and transported to contemporary New York City, where they’re befriended by a wily street kid and a lonely debutante. But they’re waylaid by an evil circus master who feeds them brain drain, and they become horrific beasts again. Among the recognizable voices are those of Walter Cronkite, John Goodman, Jay Leno, Martin Short, and Julia Child. Adapted by John Patrick Shanley from a book by Hudson Talbott and directed by several hands. (JR)… Read more »

Ruby In Paradise

Both previous features (Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green) by Florida-based independent Victor Nunez are good, but this one’s a beauty: his first original script, it details the everyday adventures and encounters of a woman in her early 20s (Ashley Judd) who flees the Tennessee mountains for a Florida resort town, Panama City Beach, along the Redneck Riviera, where she finds work in a souvenir shop. Like Eric Rohmer (another older filmmaker who favors attractive young heroines), Nunez has an untiring, subtly novelistic fascination with ordinary people and events and the special feel of particular places. Thanks to a natural and highly charismatic performance by Judd, Ruby in Paradise (1993) has a graceful lyricismas well as a complex sense of what living in today’s world is likethat will stay with you; the tempo is slow and dreamy, but the flavor is rich, and it lasts. With Todd Field, Bentley Mitchum, Allison Dean, and Dorothy Lyman. (JR)… Read more »

Royal Affairs Of Versailles

One of Sacha Guitry’s biggest commercial successes (1954), this 165-minute stuffed pheasant of a movie is a historical pageant in color, notable mainly for its chockablock all-star cast, including Claudette Colbert, Jean-Louis Barrault, Gerard Philipe, Edith Piaf, Orson Welles (as Benjamin Franklin), Brigitte Bardot, Jean Marais, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Charles Vanel, Gaby Morlay, Lana Marconi (Guitry’s fifth wife), and Guitry himself. Going out of its way to ingratiate, it certainly amuses; but being flamboyantly Guitry-esque, it also begs indulgence more than once. Its original title is Si Versailles nous etait conte, which translates roughly as If Versailles Could Talk. (JR)… Read more »

The Puppet Master

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece about the childhood and early adulthood of octogenerian Taiwanese puppet master and actor Li Tien-lu. This is the second part of a trilogy about Taiwanese life in the 20th century, covering all but the first few years of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). Hou’s preference for filming entire scenes in long takes from fixed camera angles and for eschewing close-ups has never been as masterfully employed and modulated as it is heresome of the landscape shots are breathtaking. The film alternates between re-created scenes from Li’s life, Li speaking directly to the camera about his past, and extracts from his puppet and stage performances, creating a layered density in the narrative that does full justice to the complexity and poetry of Hou’s investigation. In Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles. 142 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Perfect World

On the run from the Texas Rangers in 1963, an escaped convict (Kevin Costner) develops a close friendship with the seven-year-old boy (T.J. Lowther) he takes hostage; Clint Eastwood, who directed, stars as the leader of the Rangers, and Laura Dern plays a savvy, no-bullshit criminologist assisting in the manhunt (1993). A good two-part character study with a terrific performance by Lowther and fine work by Costner that should help resuscitate his image after too many Boy Scout projects, this bogs down when it aims for too much psychology and pathos and arrives at a few false moments and more than a few overextended ones. John Lee Hancock’s script has too many good guy-bad guy setups, and the suave period handling doesn’t always extend to the characters’ behavior, but Eastwood is generally so good at handling narrative, savoring Texas settings, and molding performances that you aren’t likely to mind much. The critique of macho and flawed father figures that he’s been preoccupied with at least since White Hunter, Black Heart continues to be pungent and thoughtful. (JR)… Read more »

One Nation Under God

A feature-length documentary by Teodoro Maniaci and Francine Rzeznikinteresting and disturbing, though a bit sound-biteyabout efforts to cure homosexuality carried out over the years in the U.S. by psychologists and Christian fundamentalists. Particular attention is given the ex-founders of the fundamentalist Exodus International, two men who wound up falling in love with each other and denouncing the movement. (JR)… Read more »

The Oak

The farcical and horrific living conditions in Romania during the last year of the Ceausescu dictatorship are the focus of this 1992 French-Romanian production by Lucian Pintilie, based on Ion Baiesu’s novel Bylanta. When her father dies in Bucharest, a young schoolteacher (Maia Morgenstern) erupts in fury against the bureaucracy, then leaves the city to teach in the provinces, where she promptly becomes the victim of a sexual assault. The doctor (Razvan Vasilescu) who befriends her soon becomes the target of corrupt local authorities. Around these starting points Pintilie builds elaborate arabesques of rage and mordant comedy. (JR)… Read more »

Let’s Go Up The Champs-elysees

Though not really a patch on either his The Pearls of the Crown or The Story of a Cheat, writer-director-star Sacha Guitry’s 1938 Remontons les Champs-Elysees, one of his earliest large-scale historical pageants, is one of his best. It offers an amusing account of Paris’s most famous boulevard from 1617 on, recounted in flashbacks by a schoolteacher played by Guitry, who also impersonates Louis XV and Napoleon III, assisted by a large, illustrious cast. (JR)… Read more »

Inside Monkey Zetterland

It’s not very funny or insightful or compelling, but it’s very LA, which gives it some minor exoticism in the midwest. The trials and tribulations of an aspiring Jewish-neurotic screenwriter and part-time actor (Steven Astin) are the main bill of fare, and the cast of flaky characters includes his soap-opera-star mother (Katherine Helmond), his estranged girlfriend (Debi Mazar), his hairdresser brother (Tate Donovan), his lesbian sister (Patricia Arquette), his long-absent father (Bo Hopkins), his radical downstairs neighbor (Martha Plimpton), his ditsy across-the-street neighbor (Sandra Bernhard), and his dog (uncredited, but my favorite performance). Astin wrote the script and coproduced, and Jefery Levy directed (1992). (JR)… Read more »

Daughter Of The Nile

This 1987 Taiwanese feature by Hou Hsiao-hsien (City of Sadness, The Puppet Master) is full of life and energy around the edges, but comes across as rather blurry and undefined at its center. The title refers to a popular Asian comic strip about an American girl who’s in love with an Egyptian king, and the plot largely concerns the relationship between Lin Hsiao-yang (played by Yang Lin, Taiwan’s most popular singer) and her brother Lin Hsiao-fang (Kao Jai), who’s involved with a group of petty gangsters. On the level of plot, Hou has edited his film pretty much against the grain, emphasizing various family relationships and leaving many aspects of the story vague (this leads to some continuity problems: one family pet, for instance, disappears without explanation and is later replaced by another). The director’s Ozu-like framing, which makes full use of domestic interiors, is striking, and the film has many interesting moments. But it’s difficult to shake off an overall sense that this is hackwork by a very talented filmmaker who deserves to be working with better material. (JR)… Read more »

A Dangerous Woman

An unholy mess with strong compensationsabove all, Debra Winger’s remarkable transformation into the title heroine, an awkward, gangling, socially dysfunctional creature who moves and behaves in unpredictable ways. But as good as Winger is in the role, the movie doesn’t tell us nearly enough about her, and it’s equally unforthcoming about the character of the aunt (Barbara Hershey) who supports her. A somewhat more finished portrait is offered by Gabriel Byrne as the English handyman who becomes involved with both women, but he’s not enough to tie up all the dangling questions and issues. As a treatment of mental illness, the film seems to promise the radicalism of a Sweetie but winds up delivering something closer to Benny & Joon. Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (Waterland), and adapted by Naomi Foner from a novel by Mary McGarry Morris; with David Strathairn, Chloe Webb, John Terry, Jan Hooks, and Laurie Metcalf. (JR)… Read more »

Carlito’s Way

If Brian De Palma has made a duller movie than this 144-minute snoozefest (1993), I count myself fortunate to have missed it. Al Pacino plays a Puerto Rican mobster from Harlem trying to go straight in the 70s (guess what? he doesn’t succeed) after his coke-snorting Jewish lawyer (Sean Penn under lots of makeup) gets him out of jail. Adapted by David Koepp from two novels by Edwin Torres, this slugs its way through almost 70 years of gangster-movie cliches (I guess they’re supposed to be hommages) and juiceless performances to arrive at a set-piece climax in Grand Central Station that isn’t worth the wait. But many of my overseas friends consider this movie sublime, so I must be missing something. With Penelope Ann Miller and John Leguizamo. (JR)… Read more »

Because You Are A Woman

This powerful feminist Korean docudrama by Kim Yu-jin (1990) demonstrates yet again the near universality of the injustices suffered by rape victims. In this case the victim is a young housewife and mother (Won Mi-kyung) who bites off the tongue of a man who attacks her one night on the street, only to find herself brought to trial and convicted for injuring him; eventually she files for a second hearing in an attempt to clear her name. Methodically directed and forcefully acted, this is one of the strongest contemporary Korean pictures I’ve seen, lucid and angry in its calm indictment. (JR)… Read more »