Yearly Archives: 1994

What Happened Was . . .

This gripping and well-acted theatrical duet (1993) evokes a kinder, gentler Oleanna; the setting is the apartment of a paralegal assistant (Karen Sillas) and the circumstance is her first date with a coworker (writer-director Tom Noonan). Neither character is quite who she or he appears to be, and a subtly modulated power shift between the two gradually takes place as each unveils an inner self. The film won a screenwriting award at Sundance, and the actors both seem to know what they’re doing every step of the way. (JR)… Read more »

One Million B.c.

Intermittently enjoyable nonsense about cave people and dinosaurs (1940) from Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., who codirected. D.W. Griffith, who was down on his luck at the time, was rumored to have directed some sequences, but informed sources report that his main role as nominal producer and adviser on the production was his discovery of Victor Mature (who plays the lead). With Carole Landis and Lon Chaney Jr. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle

Alan Rudolph’s 1994 feature about writer Dorothy Parker and the famous Algonquin wits she hung out with in the 20s certainly has its pleasures, but someone should tell Rudolph that, for all his skill and charm, period movies aren’t really his forte. As a clever postmodernist neoromantic, he’s much better at drawing on the moods of classic Hollywood to reimagine the present than at reinterpreting the past (as he also did in The Moderns, to similar effect). Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an impressive effort to copy Parker’s speech patterns, but her mannerist performance matches the claustrophobic ambience of the direction and script (by Rudolph and Randy Sue Coburn) by conjuring up a profile rather than a life or milieu. At its best this movie manages to be very touching, especially in its handling of Parker’s passionate platonic friendship with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott); at its worst it shies away so steadily from her leftist politics that you will miss them entirely if you leave before the closing credits. With Matthew Broderick, Andrew McCarthy, Wallace Shawn, Jennifer Beals, Sam Robards, Lili Taylor, and Nick Cassavetes. (JR)… Read more »

Totally F***ed Up

Gregg Araki’s disappointing low-budget feature (1993, 80 min.) about gay teenagers in Los Angeles includes many nods to Godard’s Masculine-Feminine and shows a filmmaker of sensitivity, daring, and all-around talent. But the decline in freshness and creativity from The Long Weekend (o’ Despair) to The Living End to this film is hard to rationalize. Still, if you haven’t seen those earlier films you may like this more than I did. (JR)… Read more »

Disclosure

To paraphrase French critic Michel Mourlet on Charlton Heston, Michael Douglas is an axiom, which means, in the case of this 1994 spin-off, that if you’ve already seen Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct you know in advance what the politics will be: strong women in positions of power are just fine as long as they aren’t sexually dominant and obey middle-class rules of propriety. Douglaswhose lopsided facial expressions come in two basic settings, constipated/thwarted lockjaw mode and glib/preening grin modeplays a Seattle computer executive who’s sexually importuned by former girlfriend and present boss Demi Moore; when he refuses to go all the way with her she accuses him of sexual harassment. Michael Crichton’s novel served as the basis of Paul Attanasio’s script, which is directed by Barry Levinson; the silly melodrama has some watchable as well as pleasurable moments, including two good sex scenesone between Douglas and Moore and one between Douglas and Donald Sutherlandand an interesting use of the company office as a location milked for various paranoid effects. Much less winning are a total lack of plausible motivation when it comes to Moore’s character (as in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, naked lust after Douglas’s bod is supposed to explain everything) and the improbable uses of high-tech virtual reality.… Read more »

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s best film (1993) doesn’t so much forgo the shameless and ruthless manipulations of his earlier work as refine and direct them toward a nobler purpose. Working from a well-constructed script by Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) adapting Thomas Keneally’s nonfiction novela fascinating account of the Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,100 Polish JewsSpielberg does an uncommonly good job both of holding our interest over 185 minutes and of showing more of the nuts and bolts of the Holocaust than we usually get from fiction films. Despite some characteristic simplifications, he’s generally scrupulous about both his source and the historical record. One enormous plus is the rich and beautiful black-and-white cinematography by onetime Chicagoan Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg’s capacity to milk the maximal intensity out of the existential terror and pathos conveyed in Keneally’s bookPolish Jews could be killed at any moment by the capriciousness of a labor camp director (Ralph Fiennes)is complemented and even counterpointed by his capacity to milk the glamour of Nazi high life and absolute power. Significantly, each emotional register is generally accompanied by a different style of cinematography, and much as Liam Neeson’s effective embodiment of Schindler works as our conduit to the Nazis, Ben Kingsley’s subtle performance as his Jewish accountant, right-hand man, and mainly silent conscience provides our conduit to the Polish Jews.… Read more »

La Triche

The title translates as the cheat; a French police thriller, directed by a woman, Yannick Bellon, involving a male couple, which was voted best film at the New York Gay Film Festival, with Victor Lanoux, Xavier Deluc, Valerie Mairesse, and Anny Duperey.… Read more »

Vanya On 42nd Street

In this 1994 feature by Louis Malle, Andre Gregory directs a street-clothes production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (as adapted by David Mamet) in the ruins of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theatre. Based on actual run-throughs of the play, seen by audiences of only 20 or 30, the film adroitly captures a well-honed production and incidentally unites Malle with the cowriters and costars of My Dinner With AndreGregory and Wallace Shawn (who plays Vanya). Not all of Chekhov’s social themes survive the contemporary trappings, but thanks to Gregory’s sensitive direction each actor shines. Julianne Moore and Larry Pine are especially impressive, and even a technically limited character actor like Shawn outdoes himself (albeit without quite filling Vanya’s shoes). Malle adeptly eases us into the play so we can’t tell at what precise moment Chekhov takes over, an ambiguity that becomes the film’s triumph as well as its key limitation. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Travelling Players

By critical consensus the greatest Greek feature ever madecertainly the most praised and generally considered the best work of Theo Angelopoulos, the most celebrated of all Greek filmmakers. Running just a little short of four hours, and made during the military dictatorship (1975), the film concerns a troupe of actors whose traveling production of a rural folk drama is repeatedly interrupted by political events that wind up polarizing it. Made in a style of long takes, slow camera movements, and spare editing that has led some critics to compare Angelopoulos to both Michelangelo Antonioni and Miklos Jancso, this landmark picture is said to offer a sustained metaphor for Greek history from 1939 to 1952. (JR)… Read more »

Trapped In Paradise

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 »

The Fire This Time

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 »

A Place in the World

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 »

Cobb

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

Cobb-poster

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 »

A Place In The World

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 »