Daily Archives: July 1, 1994

Spanking The Monkey

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

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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)

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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 »

Eat Drink Man Woman

With a running time of 124 minutes, Taiwanese writer-director Ang Lee’s mildly charming 1994 follow-up to The Wedding Banquet may overstay its welcome a bit. The soap-opera plot concentrates on a master chef living in Taipei with his three grown daughters, and there’s a lot of food preparation along with traces of the sweet humor that made The Wedding Banquet a success. (The style, unlike that of such Taiwanese masters as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, is fairly westernized, which undoubtedly explains why Lee’s film was distributed here.) In Mandarin with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Coming Out Under Fire

One of the most interesting and effective aspects of this prizewinning documentary by Arthur Dong about gay men and lesbians in the military during World War II is the fact that it’s in black and white. Among other things, this puts contemporary interviews and archival footage on an equal footing. (Mark Adler’s serviceable score strengthens this continuity by playing over portions of both kinds of footage.) Adapted by Dong and Allan Berube from Berube’s 1990 book of the same title and narrated by Salome Jens, this informative and intelligent work provides a comprehensive historical context for the debates stirred up by Clinton’s efforts to allow gay men and women to serve in the armed forces. (JR)… Read more »

Barcelona

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). Perhaps my biggest error in this review is my assumption that all the leading characters in Metropolitan are male. — J.R.

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The second comedy feature (1994) of neocon writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), who shares with Eric Rohmer a talent for literate and witty dialogue and a fascination with photogenic young women but has a somewhat less confident sense of milieu and story construction. As in Metropolitan, the leading characters and principal source of amusement are wealthy, self-absorbed, and virtually interchangeable American males (in this case a salesman and his cousin, a naval officer), though here they’re transplanted to the Barcelona jet-set nightclub scene, where they explain to their girlfriends and each other (as well as to the audience) how misinformed the Spanish are about the U.S. Considering how successfully they seem to colonialize all the young Spanish women in sight, regarded by heroes and movie alike as obliging pieces of furniture, one subtext seems to be that Europeans are basically first-draft Americans hungrily awaiting stateside revision. Still, this is fairly amusing stuff — brittle, fresh, and impudent –if you can stomach all the upscale arrogance. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino, Pep Munne, and Hellena Schmied.… Read more »

Angels In The Outfield

The abrasive manager (Danny Glover) of the California Angels is humanized by an orphan who becomes the team’s official mascota foster child with a pipeline to a flock of angels who end the team’s losing streak by invisibly assisting them on the playing field. Back in 1951, when this story was first filmedunder Clarence Brown’s direction, with Paul Douglas as the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirateswhat saved the potentially treacly material, if memory serves, was the good-natured sincerity. The same can be said for this version, directed by William Dear from a script by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Narrative suspense is admittedly kept to a minimum, and baseball purists may be offended by the role played by divine intervention. But as a neo-Dickensian Disney exercise in old-fashioned sentiment this has a certain charm and a sense of human decency that tended to win me over. The castGlover, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, Brenda Fricker, Milton Davis Jr., Ben Johnson, and Jay O. Sandersis better than average too. (JR)… Read more »

Suture

As far as I know this was something of a first, at least since the 20s or 30s: a movie predicated on film theory that opened commercially. 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, stages an accident meant to look like his own death, but substitutes Clay in his place. 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 hisVincent’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 oneand 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 »

Sopyonje

It isn’t a patch on Im Kwon-taek’s previous Fly High Run Far, though unlike that masterpiece, this 1993 feature made a killing at the Korean box office. How you respond to it will probably have a lot to do with how you respond to pansori, a traditional dirgelike Korean song form; the story recounts the travails of an itinerant pansori singer and the sacrifices made by his family, including two adopted children, over many years to sustain that art. With Kim Kyu-chul and Kim Myung-gon. In Korean with subtitles. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl

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

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A fascinating if irritating and ultimately unsatisfactory 1993 German documentary by Ray Müller about the remarkable filmmaker whose work provided Nazi Germany with its greatest propaganda. It’s important to know that this film was made at Riefenstahl’s own instigation, clearly designed to accompany her then recently published autobiography, and that she had veto power over who would be interviewed (don’t expect to see Susan Sontag here). Consequently this is more often self-portrait than portrait; like Hitler in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, she’s presented as a fully formed deity without family background or ideology except for a reverence for beauty and strength. Admittedly, compared to the Nazi industrialists who went unpunished, she has suffered disproportionately for her Nazi associations (albeit far less than any Jew who was gassed), and she deserves full recognition as an extraordinary woman; even in her early 90s she remained a courageous deep-sea diver, as the film shows. But at 182 minutes the film has only a few skeptical asides, and it shirks certain basic historical facts — allowing its subject to insist, for instance, that Triumph of the Will was a “straight” documentary, with no allusion to all the carefully crafted studio retakes.… Read more »

Two Small Bodies

A single mother (Suzy Amis) comes home one day to find her suburban house in disarray and her two young children missing; a police lieutenant (Fred Ward) turns up and, convinced she murdered the children, proceeds to question her at length. These are the only two characters in this playlike, rather ritualized chamber piece (1993) with sadomasochistic overtones, which never strays from the house and its immediate environs. Written and precisely directed by Beth B (Vortex, Belladonna) and shot in Germany, this independent effort is sustained by the talented actors, though how much one warms to the ambiguous goings-on will depend a great deal on one’s own psychosexual predilections. (JR)… Read more »

True Lies

One hundred million dollars and 141 minutes’ worth of comic book action from Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer-director James Cameron, most of it pitched at the level of the good-natured imperial arrogance and high-tech nonsense associated with the James Bond films. The obligatory birdbrained plot has something to do with Schwarzenegger as a secret agentan identity kept from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and teenage daughterwho neglects family duties in order to pursue Arab terrorists and tango with Tia Carrere, who works for them, until wife and daughter get sucked into the various intrigues. The comedy is extremely broad (with Curtis eliciting almost as many laughs as Schwarzenegger), the action sequences are as well crafted as one can expect from Cameron, and the meaning is as root basic as anyone would wish. If the gulf war gave you an insatiable taste for burning oil and burning Arabs, this extravaganza will tide you over for at least a couple of days. With Tom Arnold (as the hero’s wisecracking sidekick, delivering one-liners with a nasal Alan Alda-ish edge), Bill Paxton, Art Malik, and Eliza Dushku. (JR)… Read more »