Monthly Archives: July 1994

Two Frank Tashlin capsule reviews

Written for Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia (Éditions du Festival international du film de Locarno in collaboration with the British Film Institute [London]/Editions Yellow Now [Crisnée, Belgium], 1994). -– J.R.

 

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Clearly Tashlin’s most avant-garde feature, and probably his most political, thus his most misunderstood. Retaining the title, Jayne Mansfield, and advertising from George Axelrod’s Broadway play, but reportedly little else, Tashlin mounts a thoughtful and multifaceted polemic against the success ethic itself. (A key line: “Success will fit you like a shroud.”) The consequences are dazzling for his art but disastrous for his career. Made at Fox on the heels of The Girl Can’t Help It, the film provides a textbook illustration of George S. Kaufman’s maxim, “satire is what closes in New Haven.” Fortunately, before the balance sheets are counted, 50s America receives one of its two most devastating caricatures on film; the other is Chaplin’s A King in New York, made the same year. Paraphrasing Rossellini, both are the films of free men; fully anticipating Godard’s journalistic directive that you can – and must – place everything in a film, both filmmakers hit on nightmarishly topical New York dystopias set un the present, where, thanks to TV and advertising (rightly perceived as synonymous), the divisions between public and private are now fully obliterated.… Read more »

The Slingshot

I was afraid I’d find this Swedish period piece by Ake Sandgren cutesy, but I wound up liking it quite a bit. Based on an autobiographical novel by Roland Schutt, it’s set in Stockholm in the 20s. The ten-year-old hero’s mother is a Russian Jew, his father’s a revolutionary socialist, and his older brother, an aspiring boxer, keeps punching him in the nose. The anti-Semitism of Roland’s teacher and schoolmates and the illegal activities of his parents–which include distributing condoms to workers and attending incendiary political meetings–make him something of a defiant outcast. All the characters are treated with a fair amount of humor and affection (the father, played by Stellan Skarsgard, is indelible), the period details are well handled, and the episodic story line is fairly engaging. The film doesn’t dig too deep, but it might make you feel pretty good. With Jesper Salen and Basia Frydman. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 29 through August 4.… Read more »

Can Films Be Fascist?

This originally appeared in the June 24, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader, with a slightly different title (“Can Film Be Fascist?”) —J.R.

** THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ray Muller.

*** THE EYE OF VICHY

(A must-see)

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Jean-Pierre Azema and Robert O. Paxton.

Last year, about the time that Ray Muller’s mediocre if watchable three-hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl was getting widespread coverage in New York, a European friend thoughtfully sent me a tape of Looking at “Triumph of the Will”, an excellent 45-minute BBC program designed to introduce Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film to a contemporary audience. Interviewing such commentators as Hugh Hudson, Annette Insdorf, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Budd Schulberg, and Brian Winston, the program offered diverse historical, ideological, and aesthetic perspectives without privileging any single point of view. Riefenstahl herself refused to be interviewed, yet her own self-serving interpretation of her career was included, as well as that of one of her American apologists — David Hinton, the author of a book about her, who argues, as Riefenstahl does, that Triumph of the Will should not be regarded as propaganda.… Read more »

Lord of the Melting Pot [THE LION KING]

From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1994). — J.R.

** THE LION KING

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton

With the voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Moira Kelly, Jim Cummings, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cheech Marin.

Though it’s somewhat less entertaining than The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, The Lion King marks a welcome and fascinating shift in the Disney animated feature. It may be just a coincidence, but Disney’s new live-action Angels in the Outfield, a multicultural remake of a 1951 baseball fantasy, marks the same kind of racial and ethnic reorientation. I’d like to think that the widespread (and justifiable) objections raised by Middle Eastern groups to the xenophobic stereotypes in Aladdin have finally led to some rethinking by Disney executives about how to handle such ethnic material. If my hunch is correct, these changes represent not so much a kowtowing to political correctness as a more accurate reckoning of Disney’s stateside and international audience.

The issue isn’t exactly reality versus fantasy, because all Disney pictures are fantasies. In real life a white orphan isn’t likely to be adopted by a black man even if the white orphan’s best friend is a black orphan who comes along with the bargain (as in Angels in the Outfield).… Read more »

Compression Editing

In my review of Blown Away last week, an editing error made it sound as if an Irish wedding takes place as Tommy Lee Jones is blasting his way out of a prison cell at the beginning of the movie, and as if Jeff Bridges appears in the opening sequence. In fact the wedding and Bridges’s first appearance take place later in the movie.

Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

Villain the Blank [BLOWN AWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.

Blow_Away_1994_Film_Poster

* BLOWN AWAY

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach

With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.

In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.

There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away).… Read more »

A Tale of Winter

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.

The second installment (1992) in Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” centers on a young Parisian woman, aptly called Felicie, who fluctuates between two suitors — a pensive local librarian and the owner of a chain of beauty salons who’s moving to Nevers and wants her and her young daughter to come live with him. But in the back of her mind she’s holding out for the return of a former lover, the father of her daughter, whom she lost track of after they spent a summer holiday together; she accidentally gave him the wrong address when he moved away and she never heard from him again. The conception may be a little too rigorously Catholic for some tastes (including mine), but Rohmer has become such a master of his chosen classic genre — the crystalline philosophical tale of character and romantic choice — that this is a nearly perfect work, in performance as well as execution, with an apposite if ambiguous extended reference to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in the penultimate act. With Charlotte Very, Frederic Van Dren Driessche, Michel Voletti, and Herve Furic. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 15 through 21.… Read more »

Stupidity as Redemption [FORREST GUMP]

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1994). Also reprinted in  my collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.

** FORREST GUMP (Worth seeing)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by Eric Roth

With Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Humphreys, and Hanna Hall.

In the opening shot of Forrest Gump – a movie that might be described as Robert Zemeckis’s flag-waving Oscar bid — the camera meticulously follows the drifting, wayward trajectory of a white feather all the way from the heavens to the ground, just beside the muddy tennis shoes of the title hero (Tom Hanks). Forrest Gump, a slow-witted, sweet-tempered, straight-shooting fellow from Alabama with an IQ of 75, is waiting for a bus in a small park in Savannah, Georgia. Picking up the feather and placing it inside a book, he proceeds to recount his life story to various passing strangers; in the film’s final shot, over two hours later, we see a breeze carry the same white feather up and away.

These framing shots — a poetic statement about the vicissitudes of chance, how histories are made, unmade, and remade — are meant to say something about a half-century of American life, from the 40s to the present; and the tragicomic life of Forrest Gump, a saintly fool, is meant to embody those years.… Read more »

Suture

As far as I know this is something of a first, at least since the 20s or 30s: a movie predicated on film theory playing in a commercial theater. Written, directed, and produced by American independents Scott McGehee and David Siegel, this odd black-and-white ‘Scope thriller (1993) about identity and social construction concerns a young man named Clay who becomes briefly acquainted with his half-brother Vincent. Vincent, who wants to flee the country for various reasons, secretly arranges to have Clay blown up in Vincent’s car wearing Vincent’s clothes; with everyone believing he’s dead, Vincent can easily disappear. But Clay survives the explosion, though he has amnesia, and with the help of a plastic surgeon and a psychoanalyst is “restored” to an identity that was never his–Vincent’s. A subversive spin is given to this material: Clay and Vincent are said by all the characters to be dead ringers, yet Clay is played by a black actor and Vincent by a white one–and no one ever comments on it. The film may be at times a little too smart (as well as a little too drab and mechanical) for its own good, but the witty, provocative implications of the central concept linger, and the story carries an interesting sting: this is a head scratcher that actually functions.… Read more »

Spanking The Monkey

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.

spankingthemonkey

A first feature by American independent writer-director David O. Russell, this traps its hero, a premed college freshman, in his family’s suburban home for the summer. Forced to give up an internship to take care of mother (laid up with a broken leg) while his philandering father, a traveling video salesman, is out on the road, the not very likable hero finds himself in one tragicomic mishap after another involving his father’s convoluted instructions, care of the family dog, making out with a high school senior, and a growing sexual involvement with his desperate mother. Despite a certain originality, the movie isn’t really a success, not only because the plot bites off more than it can chew (the film doesn’t conclude; it simply stops), but also because, like its hero, it has some trouble distinguishing between petty irritations and cataclysmic traumas. But at least the performances are fresh and fairly nuanced. With Jeremy Davies, Elizabeth Newitt, Benjamin Hendrikson, Alberta Watson, Carla Gallo, and Richard Husson (1994). (JR)

spanking-the-monkeyRead more »

The Mask

Jim Carrey stars in this 1994 retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story that makes particular reference to The Nutty Professor. There are also multiple flourishes borrowed from Tex Avery cartoons, Gremlins, Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, and other standbys. The results are easy to watch, though awfully familiar and simpleminded. Directed by Charles Russell from a script by Mike Werb; with Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, and Amy Yasbeck. (JR)… Read more »

The Lion King

Eschewing fairy tales and other literary sources, Disney’s usual bread and butter for cartoon musicals, this animated feature about animal life in an African forest (1994) is based on an original script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton. The result is a step toward multiculturalism and ecological correctness, though not without a certain amount of confusion. The movie is not quite as entertaining as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, but it’s nice for once to see the Disney studio steering clear of the white-bread xenophobia typified by Aladdin and seeking to enlarge its stylistic palette as well as its thematic address. The songs are by Tim Rice and Elton John, and some of the actors supplying the characters’ voices are Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Moira Kelly, and Cheech Marin; Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff directed. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Of England

Derek Jarman’s kaleidoscopic experimental film (1987)a dark, poetic meditation on Thatcher Englandis visionary cinema at its best. Shot in Super-8, transferred to video for additional touches and processing, then transferred back to 35-millimeter, this work combines more than half a century of home movies of Jarman’s family, a documentary record of industrial and ecological ruin, and sustained looks at Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Spencer Leigh. The often astonishing results become increasingly spellbinding as the work proceeds. Over an evocative narration by Jarman (which includes apocalyptic quotes from such poets as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and stirring use of music and sound effects, images in black and white, sepia, and color explode and merge with mesmerizing intensity and build toward a powerful personal statement. (JR)… Read more »

It Could Happen To You

Comedy writer-director Andrew Bergman only directs this timethe script is by Jane Andersonand the results, though watchable, aren’t nearly as funny as So Fine, The Freshman, or Honeymoon in Vegas. Still, there’s plenty of his sweetness as well as his feeling for Depression-style comedy (evident in his critical book We’re in the Money) in this tale about a good-natured good-guy cop (Nicolas Cage) giving a greasy-spoon waitress (Bridget Fonda) half of a lottery ticket in lieu of a tip, then having to confront his nagging, egocentric wife (Rosie Perez) when the ticket wins a jackpot. There’s something less than sweet about Perez’s character, but if viewers decide to take this all as a fairy tale it’s easy enough to see her as the wicked witch and rationalize all the ugliness. Bergman has better luck with Cage and Fonda, who manage to ooze charm despite the simplicities of the script. With Wendell Pierce, Seymour Cassel, Isaac Hayes, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, and Red Buttons. (JR)… Read more »

In The Land Of The Deaf

This extraordinary 1992 French documentary by Nicolas Philibert, which plunges the viewer into the world of deaf sign language, required Philibert to rethink such basic documentary techniques as framing, editing, and sound recording and mixing. All the sign language is subtitled in English, but the text seems to offer only a fraction of what’s being said: the men, women, and children are so expressive and personal in their beautifully orchestrated gestures and facial expressions that few professional actors could match them. Part of what’s so wondrous here is the spectacle of sign language itself, but equally fascinating is what’s being said about the language and its possibilities. By the end of this film one feels that people who communicate in sign language are capable of expressing thingsand expressing them in waysthat are beyond our grasp. 99 min. In French and sign language with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »