If Frank Capra had directed the Three Stooges in a Disney Christmas release, the results would have been considerably better than this godawful Fox comedy (1994) by writer-producer-director George Gallo. During the holiday season, brothers Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey decide to knock off a bank in Paradise, a small Pennsylvania town oozing with goodwill and low-grade Capracorn. Even the weather seems tailored to the script’s shifting needs (one river is iceless, the others completely frozen over) as the bumbling brothers struggle to make their escape, and only Florence Stanley as their hard-nosed mother shows enough smarts to play this farrago with some semblance of style. With Madchen Amick, Donald Moffat, and Richard Jenkins. PG-13, 112 min. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: November 1994
PBS has refused to show Randy Holland’s powerful, illuminating feature-length documentary video (1993) about South Central Los Angeles, no doubt because it offers an analysis of unemployment and oppression that implies an active conspiracy–an analysis offered mainly by people who live there. If this sounds dubious in a few particulars, it’s still the most cogent and persuasive portrait of this ghetto and its determinations that I’ve seen, and unless the Republicans come up with a better explanation this one will have to stand, with or without PBS’s dubious seal of approval. The video traces the rise of the ghetto gangs to the destruction of Black Panther leadership by the police and the FBI in the 60s, to the continuing preference of the white community for building prisons (the one government program they still support) rather than hospitals, schools, parks, or recreation centers, and to the refusal of local building crews to employ qualified blacks. It’s worth adding that the gang members argue that the ready availability of drugs and firearms is largely attributable to the police and that the unvoiced agenda of the white middle class is that ghetto residents should destroy one another. This agenda is remarkably close to that of conservative filmmaker John Carpenter in his SF thriller They Live.… Read more »
This 1991 Argentine-Uruguayan production by Argentinean writer-director Adolfo Aristarain, nominated for an Academy Award before being disqualified on a technicality, is better than most foreign Oscar nominees. Aristarain compares the plot, which involves the recollected adolescence of a boy growing up in Argentina’s Bermejo Valley, to that of Shane, but this hardly does it justice. The boy’s parents are an idealistic Jewish doctor (Cecilia Roth) and sociology professor turned schoolteacher (Federico Luppi) who’ve helped found a cooperative of poor shepherds with an outspoken and committed nun. The Shane figure is a Spanish geologist-mercenary hired by the principal landowner in the region. All these characters, along with the illiterate daughter of a local foreman the boy falls in love with, are treated with a novelistic density and ambiguity, and you’re likely to remember them afterward as you would real people. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 25 through December 1.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1994). — J.R.
Writer-director Ron Shelton’s fourth feature (Bull Durham, Blaze, and White Men Can’t Jump are the other three) is a shambles, but it’s such a potent and courageous wreck of a movie that it’s worth more than most successes. Only obliquely a sports story, and missing most of Shelton’s usual humor, this is a troubled portrait of an odious Ty Cobb, possibly the greatest of all baseball players, from the vantage point of the last year or so of his life. Based on the recollections of Al Stump, who ghosted Cobb’s self-serving and unreliable 1961 autobiography, the film fails to make either Cobb or Stump fully believable, despite a towering performance by Tommy Lee Jones as the former and a perfectly adequate one by Robert Wuhl as the latter. In part that’s because Shelton, hampered in his efforts to shift between the two characters’ points of view, is actually after bigger game: a critique of the American success ethic and the preference for legend over truth. (In many ways, the story has more in common with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than with any other sports biopic.) The sheer, dark unpleasantness of what emerges is such that at certain moments even Shelton backs away from it and tries to wring out a sentimental tear or two (along with a belated Freudian revelation).… Read more »
This 1991 Argentine/Uruguayan coproduction by Argentinian writer-director Adolfo Aristarain was nominated for an Academy Award before being disqualified on a technicality, and by and large it’s better than most foreign movies that get nominated for Oscars. Aristarain compares the plotwhich involves the recollected adolescence of a boy growing up in Argentina’s Bermejo Valleywith that of Shane, but this hardly does it justice. The boy’s parents are an idealistic Jewish doctor (Cecilia Roth) and a sociology professor turned schoolteacher (Federico Luppi), who have helped found a cooperative of poor shepherds with an outspoken and committed nun. The Shane figure is a Spanish geologist-mercenary hired by the principal landowner in the region; all these characters, and the illiterate daughter of a local foreman the boy falls in love with, are treated with a novelistic density and ambiguity, and we’re likely to remember them afterward as we would real people. Recommended. (JR)… Read more »
In his eighth feature (1994), European cult figure and comic Italian writer-director-performer Nanni Moretti offers a graceful, charming, funny, and intimate three-part film essay. The first part, On My Vespa, follows Moretti as he travels around Rome on his motorbike, visiting various neighborhoods (as well as a couple of movies) and ruminating on what he sees; the second chapter, Islands, has him touring a group of islands off the coast of Italy and Sicily with an intellectual friend, searching for a quiet place to do some work; and Doctors, the most straightforward and factual section, chronicles Moretti’s visits to a string of doctors about a mysterious itching ailment and their conflicting diagnoses and prescriptions. For all the wayward digressions of this film (including some fascinating and hilarious notations about the role of television in contemporary Italy), the experience of the three parts is mysteriously and hauntingly unified, and one comes away with an indelible sense of having had human contact. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »
New Zealand writer-director Peter Jackson directed this cartoonish 1994 melodrama based on the real-life Parker-Hulme affair, in which two passionately interconnected and obsessive New Zealand teenage girls killed one of their mothers in 1952. Jackson tries to enter as well as celebrate the collective consciousness of the heroines, and though the results are often visually striking, they quickly become glib and mechanical as the lurching zooms and intercut fantasy motifs are repeatedly trotted out like favorite routines. Unlike the campy excess of Jackson’s earlier Dead Alive, this kind of deliberate overkillwhich extends to the broad caricatures of the girls’ families as well as the girls’ feverish fantasy lifeultimately points toward a dearth of ideas rather than a surfeit, though the story remains sufficiently interesting and troubling to hold one’s attention. With Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, and Sarah Peirse. R, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »
From Felix (published by the European Film Academy) no. 5, 25 November 1994, where it appeared both in English and in German translation, as part of a special section called “The Vanishing Critic”. That title seems prescient in some respects; in many other ways, however, this whole piece seems very dated now. –- J.R.
One factor in particular seems to distinguish the situation of film critics in the United States from the situation of film critics elsewhere: that for the past twenty years or more, many of them have been treated like stars. This isn’t to say that the same syndrome hasn’t appeared elsewhere in different forms. During the last year or so of his life, the late Serge Daney achieved a kind of celebrity in France that is certainly related to stardom. But the notion of the intellectual star critic — the sort of fame that has accompanied European figures such as Sartre, Barthes, and Eco, and which formed Daney’s late career to a lesser extent — is not readily translatable into a stateside context, apart from a handful of figures mainly identified in the U.S with Europe, such as Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag.
What I’m thinking of, rather, are two separate kinds of star status achieved by American film critics since the 1970s.… Read more »
This fruitful collaboration between Chicago independent Joseph Ramirez and Illinois poet Paul Hoover is a major advance over Ramirez’s attempt to yoke cinema with poetry in his first feature, Descent. Shot with a Chicago cast and crew in rural Iowa, Viridian follows the painful adjustments of a divorced young woman and her little boy as they move from one rented farmhouse to another, focusing on her dreams as well as her waking thoughts. Though the plot is minimal, the gorgeous cinematography (by Sean Culver, who also served as editor) and Hoover’s writing, most of which figures as the woman’s offscreen narration, mesh with and complement each other in arresting and mysterious ways. The marriage of lonely figures and landscapes occasionally recalls some of the best features of Jon Jost, and the functional performances by Diane Weyerman, Mathew Brennan, and James Larkin allow Ramirez as well as us to weave meditative moods and reflections around the evocative words and images. Ramirez, Hoover, Culver, and Weyerman will all be present at this world premiere to discuss their work. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 18, 8:00, and Saturday, November 19, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 2007). — J.R.
I haven’t seen David Mamet’s controversial two-character play on the stage, but his own film adaptation (2007) is easily his best movie since House of Games. The two characters are a pontificating, bullying male college professor (William H. Macy) up for tenure and his initially cowed, eventually empowered female student (Debra Eisenstadt), who winds up charging him with sexual harassment. The stage versions have often been attacked for siding with the professor, but what seems most impressive about the movie, which may have benefited from certain refinements in the material, is that the two characters are so evenly matched by the dramaturgy that they become Strindbergian antagonists in a life-and-death struggle — equally odious in their authoritarian reliance on institutions to define their own identities and equally crippled by what might be described as their political impotence, which drives them to reach desperately for whatever institutional weapons are available to them. Within this context, education becomes as much an alibi as political correctness, and the most telling aspect of the struggle is that the two characters, even in their carefully coded sexual roles, become two different versions of the same blocked individual.… Read more »
In his first American picture (1994), clearly a spin-off of La femme Nikita, nihilist French filmmaker Luc Besson raises the stakes of his popular girl-with-a-gun theme by making the heroine a 12-year-old (Natalie Portman) who learns from a hit man (French movie star Jean Reno) how to handle firearms in order to avenge the slaughter of her family (by a group of sleazy drug barons headed by Gary Oldman). One might assume such a notion to be commercially foolproof, but apparently something or someone intervenedwas it the ratings board or the NRA?and the movie winds up cheating its premise by leaving the girl’s trainer to carry out all the dirty work. For sweaty, suspenseful thriller mechanics the first reel or so is fairly adroit, and action buffs who like explosions probably won’t feel cheated. But the sheer oddness of the New York world constructed for this filmwhere cops and crooks are literally interchangeable, and Oldman and Danny Aiello are stranded in roles that pick over the leavings of earlier partsultimately seems at once too deranged and too mechanical. (JR)… Read more »
If Ivan Reitman made a family-values comedy about Julia Roberts sprouting a full-blown penis, chances are the results would be called cheap and tasteless; luckily for him, he lives in a culture where he can show Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant instead and be credited for putting across a cute concept. Making it cute is the sight of Schwarzenegger displaying all sorts of wifely attributesfor me, the most offensive part of the movieas the hunk’s tummy gets bigger. (He and a fellow researcher played by Danny DeVito have been experimenting with a fertility drug.) Also important here is the popular idea in our culture (cf Tootsie, The Crying Game, et al) that guys make the best women anyway. To be fair to the filmmakers, Emma Thompson does a very funny job as the inadvertent egg supplier for Schwarzenegger’s infant, and the filmmakers (including screenwriters Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad) work overtime trying to keep the conceit ideologically inoffensive, even to the point of providing a female character (Pamela Reed) who’s pregnant in sync with Schwarzenegger and confusing us all about which part of Schwarzenegger’s body the baby finally emerges from. Truth to tell, this is a traditional (and traditionally bad) Hollywood movie in more ways than I care to name, but at least Reitman and company do their utmost to keep their tastelessness up to date (1994).… Read more »
A group of former Disney workers headed by Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound) put together this formulaic, imitation-Disney animated musical fairy tale (1994). Undemanding kids may be held by it, but adults are likely to think that they’ve seen it all before. The settings tend to be more imaginative than the characters, and one may wonder if the assigning of a French accent to a frog points to some Francophobia on the part of the writers. Among the better-known voices are those of John Cleese, Sandy Duncan, and Jack Palance. (JR)… Read more »
From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Directed and written by David Mamet
With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.
David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.
To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case.… Read more »
This unforgettable two-part Canadian TV docudrama (1992) deals forcefully though not exploitatively with a very delicate subject–the sexual abuse and sadistic treatment of boys at a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland by some of the religious brothers assigned to take care of them. Suggested by real-life events (and consequently held back from public broadcast while a related investigation was under way), the two 95-minute features are sensitively directed by John N. Smith and cogently written by Smith, Des Walsh, and Sam Grana. The first part focuses on the relationship between a key offender and a ten-year-old who has been singled out as “his boy,” leading to a complaint lodged by a janitor and a subsequent police investigation followed by a hasty cover-up. The second part charts the reopening of the case 15 years later, when the offender, who has long since left the order to become a respectable husband and father, is summoned to a hearing, along with his victim and a key witness, both young men now. Neither homophobic nor psychologically pat, the film doesn’t make the mistake of pretending to offer the last word on the subject, and is striking most of all for the nuanced performance of Henry Czerny as the main offender, though all the acting is first-rate.… Read more »