Monthly Archives: March 1994

The Paper

Director Ron Howard (Parenthood, Backdraft, Far and Away) scores with an old-fashioned entertainment about a day in the life of a New York tabloid like the Post or the News. The contrived climaxes are strictly over the top, and the Coca-Cola plugs are so frequent that the movie starts to seem like a feature-length commercial, but a bustling script by David and Stephen Koepp and fancy turns by Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close (as a snarling villain), Marisa Tomei, and Randy Quaid keep your adrenaline up even when your mind is on automatic pilot. There’s a very strong moment showing how a trumped-up police bust registers on the innocent party’s sister, a black girl doing her homework, and it’s easy to forgive the movie’s ham-handed depiction of the New York Times when its west-coast ribbing of Manhattan provinciality is so on target in other places. (Indeed, one suspects that the coolness of many reviewers to both this picture and Greedy, the latter made by Howard’s production company, is similarly motivated: for all their good humor, both movies are just a little too skeptical about slimy aspects of the contemporary world too often uncritically accepted.) This may not be The Front Page, but it understands what made those early newspaper pictures so breezy.… Read more »

Savage Nights

Highly controversial and troubling but undeniably powerful and impossible to dismiss, this French feature cowritten (with critic Jacques Fieschi) by, directed by, and starring the late Cyril Collard follows the last reckless days and nights of a 30-year-old cinematographer and musician who discovers he is HIV positive but continues to have sex with strangers as well as with his two more regular lovers. Based on Collard’s autobiographical novel Les nuits fauves, Savage Nights won Cesars (the French equivalent of Oscars) for best picture, best first picture, most promising actress (Romane Bohringer), and best editing a few days after the 35-year-old filmmaker died of AIDS in March 1993. These honors can’t simply be written off as sentimental: stylistically and dramatically, this is an accomplished piece of work. If Collard’s driven hero often seems far from admirable–unconsciously misogynistic beneath his apparent bisexual “tolerance,” and, as his masochistic behavior often implies, full of self-loathing–the film seems admirably unpropagandistic in permitting spectators to make up their own minds about him. It also gives full voice to the agony of unrequited adolescent love (Bohringer’s volcanic performance), and, for better and for worse, offers a treatment of AIDS that’s the other side of the moon from Philadelphia–politically incorrect with a vengeance.… Read more »

Highway Patrolman

The anarchistic and unpredictable English director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) goes bilingual in this 1992 Mexican picture, spoken in Spanish throughout. In some ways it’s his best work to date–a beautifully realized tale about the life of a Mexican highway patrolman who’s neither sentimentalized nor treated like a villain: he takes bribes, but has a sense of ethics. Wonderfully played by Mexican star Roberto Sosa, he’s a more believable cop than any Hollywood counterparts that come to mind. Starting off as a sadsack comedy with black overtones, the film gravitates into grim neorealism, but Cox also displays a flair for surrealist filigree (worthy of Bunuel in spots) and straight-ahead action, and does some marvelous things with actors and the Mexican landscape. In some respects, this is a return to the funky, witty pleasures of Repo Man, but the virtuoso long-take camera style–there are only 187 cuts in the entire movie–and emotional depth show a more mature Cox. (I hope the other Mexican feature he made around the same time–a masterful, baroque black-and-white adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass” done for the BBC, with a camera style suggesting Touch of Evil–will eventually be imported as well.) Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 18 through 24.… Read more »

Vietnam Under Glass [THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA]

From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1994). — J.R.

*** THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-khe, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hoi, and Tran Ngoc Trung.


Until fairly recently, films from the Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking world have had next to no distribution here; so it’s worth noting that three such movies have been nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: Farewell My Concubine from Hong Kong, The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan, and The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam. The first two of these have already opened in Chicago, and the third — in some ways my favorite in the bunch — is starting a run this week at the Fine Arts. What overlapping interests — economic, cultural, artistic, ideological — are being served by this sudden upsurge in attention?

Interestingly enough, none of these Oscar nominees qualifies purely and unambiguously as a movie representing the country officially attached to it. Though Farewell My Concubine was produced in Hong Kong, all its action takes place in mainland China, and it was directed by a celebrated “Fifth Generation” filmmaker, Chen Kaige. The Wedding Banquet, a Taiwanese-American coproduction, has a Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, but it’s set in New York City and much of its dialogue is in English.… Read more »

Sirens

The charm, humor, and healthy eroticism of Australian writer-director John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting) are back in force in this pleasantly recounted tale, set in the 30s, about a newlywed Anglican clergyman and his wife, freshly played by Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald, who stop off at the remote home of a controversial (i.e., erotic) painter (Sam Neill). The clergyman has been asked by his bishop to try to persuade the painter to remove one of his sexy paintings from an upcoming exhibit, and when the couple unexpectedly have to extend their stay, the sensual lures of both the scenic setting and the bohemian household–which largely consists of the painter’s female models–have a subtle but indelible effect on them, the wife in particular. With Elie Macpherson, Portia De Rossi, Kate Fischer, and Pamela Rabe; Duigan himself has a cameo as a local minister. Pipers Alley.… Read more »

Body Snatchers

For my money, Abel Ferrara’s remake of a remake — namely Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on Don Siegel’s classically paranoid 1956 SF adaptation of Jack Finney’s effective novel The Body Snatchers — doesn’t match the Siegel original, though it’s a lot scarier and more memorable than Kaufman’s low-key, new-agey version. Kaufman shifted the action from a small California town to San Francisco, while Ferrara–shooting a script by Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and Nicholas St. John from a screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen — locates the action in an Army compound in Alabama. Until the end, when the story lamentably collapses into incoherence, the theme — uncertainty about whether family members or friends have been replaced by extraterrestrial replicas spawned by pods, a notion of conformity rich in sociopolitical overtones — affords a lot of queasy moments. Ferrara, whom I prefer dressing up genre exercises (as in King of New York and this movie) to dressing down art movies (as in Bad Lieutenant), swims well in these troubled waters. (Why this picture is being marketed as an art movie is anybody’s guess, but the initial reluctance of Warners to release it at all — another mystery — is probably related.) With Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Billy Wirth, R.… Read more »

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Even if you have a taste for movies about dysfunctional families, as I do, you may be a little put off by the Grapes in this adaptation by Peter Hedges of his own novel: missing father, 500-pound mother, mentally disabled son (especially good work by Leonardo DiCaprio), and two daughters, as well as Johnny Depp to more or less hold things together. This is directed by Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Once Around), and his feeling for the look and mood of a godforsaken midwestern town is often as acute as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography; Juliette Lewis plays the out-of-town girl Depp takes a shine to once he starts getting tired of the married woman (Mary Steenburgen) he’s involved with, and while the picture is too absentminded to explain what it is that makes Lewis move in and out of town, she and Depp make a swell couple. There are other rough edges as far as plot is concerned, but I liked it. With Darlene Cates, Laura Harrington, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Kevin Tighe, and Crispin Glover. Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Bricktown Square, Lincoln Village, Water Tower.… Read more »

Chicago’s Own

A program of recent works by two local video artists. The longest is Pure (1993), an extremely ambitious and highly provocative globehopping video essay by the University of Chicago’s Scott Rankin–a densely packed discussion of exoticism, authenticity, and a great deal more. Mocking the role of the in-person TV commentator while offering nonstop philosophical notations about our dubious and ideologically informed grasp of the world we live in, Rankin may give us more material than we can comfortably digest in an hour–but then so do the world and the media he describes. On the same program are four videos by Northwestern University’s Annette Barbier; the only one I’ve seen, The Kitchen Goddess (1992), has some interesting computer graphics and ideas about domestic work. The others: Domestic Portraits 1 and 2 and Moving to the Suburbs, both made in 1993. Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Friday, March 4, 8:00, 384-5533.… Read more »

Why Is This Movie a Hit?

From the Chicago Reader (March 4, 1994). — J.R.

* ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Tom Shadyac

Written by Jack Bernstein, Jim Carrey, and Shadyac

With Carrey, Sean Young, Courteney Cox, Tone Loc, and Dan Marino.

Why go back to a movie that affected me the first time like a piece of chalk squeaking across a blackboard? Well, for one thing, neither I nor any other reviewer I know of came anywhere close to predicting that Ace Ventura: Pet Detective would not only find an audience but sail to the top of the box-office charts. How did we all miss the boat? “An appallingly bad movie, a certain candidate for worst of the year,” begins Gene Siskel’s capsule review in the Tribune; it concludes, “Don’t ask how this was financed.” These were my sentiments exactly at the press screening — a sort of stupefied horror at the manic leers and terminally stupid gags of star and cowriter Jim Carrey, coupled with disbelief that anyone could possibly go for them. But when the movie opened it soon became clear that at least some financiers knew exactly what they were doing. What did they understand that the rest of us grown-ups missed out on?… Read more »

Sirens

The charm, humor, and healthy eroticism of Australian writer-director John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting) are back in force in this pleasantly recounted tale, set in the 30s, about a newlywed Anglican clergyman and his wife, freshly played by Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald, who stop off at the remote home of a controversial (i.e., erotic) painter (Sam Neill). The clergyman has been asked by his bishop to try to convince the painter to remove one of his sexy paintings from an upcoming exhibit, and when he and his wife unexpectedly have to extend their stay, the sensual lures of both the scenic setting and the bohemian householdwhich largely consists of females who pose nude for the painterhave a subtle but indelible effect on the couple, the wife in particular. With Elle Macpherson, Portia De Rossi, Kate Fischer, and Pamela Rabe; Duigan himself has a cameo as a local minister. (JR)… Read more »

The Scent Of Green Papaya

A beautiful first feature (1993) by Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, shot on a French soundstage and set in two bourgeois Saigon households in 1951 and ’61. The central character, inspired by Tran’s mother, is a servant girl, played as a ten-year-old by Lu Man San and as a young woman by Tran’s wife, Tran Nu Yen-khe, and the main focus is on everyday household chores and sensual discoveries, all made mesmerizing by elaborately choreographed camera movements that link interiors and exteriors in the same fluid itineraries. The first household contains an unhappy family, the second a wealthy Europeanized composer, and, perhaps significantly, only the first seems to have much connection with the surrounding neighborhood. The Vietnam war is dealt with so elliptically that it figures only as offscreen sirens and overhead planes. This stylish period piece won the Camera d’Or at the 1993 Cannes film festival and was nominated for an Oscar. In Vietnamese with subtitles. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

Naked Gun 33<6: The Final Insult

A step down from the first Naked Gun cop-thriller spoof, which was a step down from Airplane! and Top Secret!; but if you care about such fine distinctions, this may be marginally better than Naked Gun 2<4: The Smell of Fear. Or at least it is when the movie finally arrives at the climactic Academy Awards ceremony; prior to that, it’s mainly just one little-boy gag after anothertopical enough to include a reference to Tonya Harding, silly enough to make you laugh sometimes in spite of yourselfat least if you’re feeling like a little boy. With Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Fred Ward, Anna Nicole Smith, Kathleen Freeman, and Ellen Greene; directed by Peter Segal from a script by Pat Proft, David Zucker, and Robert LoCash. (JR)Read more »

The Hudsucker Proxy

The year is supposed to be 1958, but because the filmmakers are Fargo’s Joel and Ethan Coenthe Beavis and Butt-head of starstruck independents, who clearly consider themselves better than historywhat we get are various elements swiped from other movies made between 1929 and 1994, the year this was released. These massive borrowings, many from the screwball comedies of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Terry Gilliam (plus a giant clock from Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight), are mixed together with fancy sets to yield a jeering, dreamlike comedy with nothing much on its mind except how neat the Coen brothers are and how stupid or contemptible everybody else is, including everyone in the audience. This is a fantasy about the invention and mass marketing of the hula hoop as seen through the absurdist rise to executive power of a midwestern hayseed (Tim Robbins) gulled by both a cynical vice president (Paul Newman) and a cynical reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh). At its best it’s a free-form fantasy with glitzy, well-executed effects and assorted metaphysical conceits but little feeling for any of the characters apart from derision (with a few touches of racism here and there). Sam Raimi collaborated on the script, and the supporting cast includes Charles Durning, John Mahoney, Jim True, and Peter Gallagher.… Read more »

Highway Patrolman

The anarchistic and unpredictable English director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) goes bilingual in this 1992 Mexican picture, the dialogue of which is all in Spanish. In some ways it’s his best worka beautifully realized tale about the life of a Mexican highway patrolman who’s neither sentimentalized nor treated like a villain: he takes bribes but has a sense of ethics. Wonderfully played by Mexican star Roberto Sosa, he’s a more believable cop than any Hollywood counterparts that come to mind. Starting off as a sad-sack comedy with black overtones, the film gravitates into grim neorealism, but Cox has a flair for surrealist filigree (worthy of Bu… Read more »

Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina

The songs are sappy (apart from Barry Manilow’s one good song here, Marry the Mole); the hero and heroine are bland master-race specimens; and some of the pastel effects are ugly and tacky. But most of the animation in this Don Bluth feature is fairly nice, if not exactly memorable to adults who’ve seen it all before. Kids should like it fine, I suspect. Gary Goldman codirected, and among the actors supplying the voices are Jodi Benson, Carol Channing, John Hurt, Gilbert Gottfried, Kenneth Mars, and Loren Michaels. (JR)… Read more »