Yearly Archives: 1994

Caro Diario

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 »

Heavenly Creatures

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 »

Viridian

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 »

Oleanna

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 »

The Professional

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 »

Junior

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 »

The Swan Princess

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 »

The Boys of St. Vincent

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 »

Complaints of a Dutiful Daugher and Fast Trip, Long Drop

These exceptional personal documentaries add up to a potent double bill; of the nonfiction films in the festival that I’ve seen, these are in many ways the best. Deborah Hoffman’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, which deals only in passing with the fact that the director’s a lesbian, is a beautifully precise, acute, intelligent, practical, touching, and even (at times) comic record of how she copes with her discovery that her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Using video and audio recordings of her interactions with her mother and some on-camera statements of her own, Hoffman charts in haunting detail precisely what memory loss entails, not only for her mother but for herself as she adjusts to the situation. Full of wisdom and insight, this 44-minute essay film is far from depressing. The same is true of Gregg Bordowitz’s 54-minute, deconstructive Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), an autobiographical essay about the filmmaker’s 1988 discovery that he’d tested HIV-positive and his subsequent life, including his decision to quit drugs and drinking and come out to his mother and stepfather. Making semiironic use of silent found footage and Jewish music, Bordowitz speaks about his late father and his sex life; he also includes conversations with various friends (including filmmaker Yvonne Rainer), his own documentary footage of AIDS rallies, a tour of his bookshelves, and a bitter parody of the way the media have treated AIDS.… Read more »

Working With Orson Welles

Along with Oja Kodar, cinematographer and low-budget filmmaker Gary Graver was the most faithful and indefatigable of Orson Welles’s collaborators over the last quarter century of his life, and this endearing but ramshackle feature-length video by Graver (1993) is like a conducted tour through the cameraman’s closet. The most precious documents on view are the original trailers for Citizen Kane and F for Fake, both in effect self-contained short works by Welles. (The first was made during the production of Kane; the second, an extravagant nine minutes long, was made more than three years after the European release of F for Fake, and because the feature’s U.S. distributor refused to process it, it survives only as a black-and-white work print.) But Graver is too generous and indiscriminate to stop there; he also offers the trailers for David and Goliath (a cheesy epic in which Welles plays King Saul) and Kodar’s first feature, Jaded (a singular exploitation item, still unreleased in the U.S., in which one can catch glimpses of Welles’s unreleased The Merchant of Venice). There are also a few fugitive clips from better-known Welles features, but the main topic broached is Welles’s unreleased The Other Side of the Wind, which still awaits completion funding; there’s no plot description or final footage, but its production is recalled by Cameron Mitchell, Susan Strasberg, Frank Marshall, Peter Jason, Curtis Harrington, and Peter Bogdanovich.… Read more »

The Seventh Continent

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

A powerful, provocative, and highly disturbing Austrian film by Michael Haneke that focuses on the collective suicide of a young and seemingly “normal” family (1989). Prompted by Austria’s high suicide rate and various news stories, the film’s agenda is not immediately apparent; it focuses at first on the family’s highly repetitive life-style, taking its time establishing the daily patterns of the characters. The roles of television and money in their lives are crucial to what this film is about, but the absence of any obvious motives for the family’s ultimate despair is part of what gives this film its devastating impact. Its tact and intelligence, and also its reticence and detachment, make it a shocking and potent statement about our times — to my mind a work much superior to the two other films in Haneke’s trilogy about contemporary, affectless violence, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. With Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer, and Udo Samel. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, November 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, November 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Dream Girls

A very suggestive, interesting BBC documentary (1993) by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams about the Takarazuka Revuea Japanese all-female theater company and school, founded in 1914 and based in suburban Osakaand their female fans. The filmmakers don’t make many inferences about the psychosexual implications of this phenomenon, but the performers and fans have a lot to say, and some of the teachers (all male) have a few things to add. (JR)… Read more »

Complaints Of A Dutiful Daughter

An exceptional personal documentary, Deborah Hoffman’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter is a beautifully precise, acute, intelligent, practical, touching, and even (at times) comic record of how she copes with her discovery that her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Using video and audio recordings of her interactions with her mother and some on-camera statements of her own, Hoffman charts in haunting detail precisely what memory loss entails, not only for her mother but for her as she adjusts to the situation. Full of wisdom and insight about its subject, this 44-minute essay film is far from depressing. (JR)… Read more »

Red

The third and best feature (1994, 99 min.) of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s highly ambitious Three Colors trilogy concentrates on the theme of fraternity (Blue tackled liberty, White equality). The principal characters are a young student and model (Irene Jacob) and a cynical retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose paths cross by chance in Geneva, and in a way their meeting comes to stand for a good many of the other accidental incidents threaded through this densely textured movie, including one that ties up many of the loose ends of the two previous films. The telephone and (to a lesser degree) the TV set both play substantial roles in linking these and other lives, but they are far from the only linchpins in Kieslowski’s poetic universe; among others are the color red and the filmmaker’s own sardonic identification with the mordant former judge, who eavesdrops on the phone conversations of his neighbors and seems to hate them and himself in about equal measure. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Our Daily Bread

Even a romantic individualist like King Vidor, who would later film Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, was sufficiently stirred by socialist ideals during the Depression to make this exciting independent effort (1934) about an all-American couple who decide to pool their resources with others and build a collective farm. Beautifully directed and edited, this is one of the best and most energetic of Vidor’s early talkies, brimming with hope and enthusiasm and sparked by a wonderful climactic sequence. There’s even some melodrama when a love triangle elbows its way into the plot. With Tom Keene (an uneven performance), Karen Morley, and John Qualen. (JR)… Read more »