Yearly Archives: 1994

Orphans Of The Storm

D.W. Griffith takes on the French Revolution, including pussyfooting Robespierre (his epithet), many other famous historical figures, and the sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish in one of the best of the director’s late silent epics (1922). Shot on 14 acres at Mamaroneck, New York, and based on Adolph Ennery’s 19th-century French play The Two Orphans, the film is full of suspense and melodrama. With Joseph Schildkraut, Lucille LaVerne, Monte Blue, and Louis Wolheim. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »

L’enfer

Adapting a script by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique) that Clouzot didn’t live long enough to film, Claude Chabrol dives into this story of obsessive and paranoid jealousy with a great deal of style and confidence, and one is waiting breathlessly for a second act or some sort of denouement when, alas, the film simply ends. The story, set on Lake Saint-Ferreol in Lauraguais, France, takes place largely in the mind of the recent purchaser of a deluxe resort hotel, who starts to suspect irrationally that his newlywed wife (played by Emmanuelle Beart) is having sex with a nearby garage mechanic; his fears grow as his imagination runs amok. (The title means hell.) With Francois Cluzet and Nathalie Cardone. (JR)… Read more »

Street Of No Return

After the extensive recutting of his The Big Red One and the virtual shelving of his White Dog, American writer-director Sam Fuller reluctantly chose creative exile in Paris. In many ways the most elaborate and ambitious of his post-American features is this 1989 noir, an adaptation (by Fuller and producer Jacques Bral) of a David Goodis novel that was shot in Portugal. It stars Keith Carradine as a famous pop singer who winds up on skid row after he falls for a mysterious woman and gets his throat cut by her gangster boyfriend; much of the story is told in flashback after he’s arrested during a race riot. Recognizably (and enjoyably) Fuller-esque in its caustic violence, its punchy yellow-press dialogue, and its campy sensationalism, the movie is hamperedto the point of becoming weirdly discombobulatedby its use of Lisbon locations to stand in for American ones; the experience is every bit as disconcerting as Anthony Perkins’s American accent in Orson Welles’s version of Kafka’s The Trial. The singular vision of Fuller in his late 70s, tied as always to his passionate and radical view of the U.S., is filtered here through heaps of Eurotrash, and the results are distinctly unsettling. Fuller fans can’t afford to pass this up.… Read more »

Welfare

One of Frederick Wiseman’s strongest documentaries, this nearly three-hour look at a New York welfare center (1975), which concentrates on the interactions between clients and social workers, is both pungent and unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger on both sides of the counter. Wiseman’s customary refusal to add an offscreen commentary makes the film even more compelling, though it may irritate viewers who feel they need to know more about the cases to decide how they feel about them. Throwing us into the thick of things without a map, Wiseman dares us to reach conclusions according to the evidence of our eyes and ears. It’s impossible to emerge from such an experience unscathed. 167 min. (JR)… Read more »

Viridian

This fruitful collaboration (1994) 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 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 to weave meditative moods around the evocative words and images. (JR)… Read more »

Interview With The Vampire

Anne Rice adapted the first volume of her Vampire Chronicles for this 1994 feature. A vampire (Brad Pitt) recounts his life story to a reporter (Christian Slater) in contemporary San Francisco. The film seems pitched mainly to people familiar with the book, and you may be perplexed about some background detailssuch as the identity of the interviewer and even who the vampire is at the beginning of his tale, when he’s still a mortal and encounters the vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) in late-18th-century New Orleans. But if you can get swept up in the story, the movie is imaginative and compelling. After the story moves to France, the superb visualization of catacombs may put you in mind of Poe. Directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), this is an ambitious, florid epic with some fine, eerie moments tied to a little girl played by Kirsten Dunst. But a more explicit spelling out of the story’s gay subtext would have helped. With Stephen Rea and Antonio Banderas. R, 122 min. (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 subjectthe 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 an investigation was under way), this work consists of two 95-minute features, both 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’s been singled out as his boy, leading to a complaint lodged by a janitor, a police investigation, and a hasty cover-up. The second part charts the reopening of the case 15 years later, when the offender, who’s long since left the orphanage to become a respectable family man, is summoned to a hearing along with his victim and a key witness, both now young men. Neither homophobic nor psychologically pat in its approach, the film doesn’t make the mistake of pretending to offer the last word on the subject and is most striking for the nuanced performance of Henry Czerny as the main offender, though all the acting is first-rate.… Read more »

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

Joseph Green’s low-budget feature (1963) about a surgeon trying to find a body to attach to the decapitated but still-living head of his fiancee. Legendary for its sheer awfulness, the film was shot in Tarrytown, New York, and wasn’t released until several years later, which automatically makes it ripe for canonization today. With Herb (Jason) Evers and Virginia Leith. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The title of this 1994 would-be spin-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is something of a misnomer, and the film itself provides further proof of Kenneth Branagh’s faltering skill as a filmmaker whenever he tries to move beyond Shakespeare. Though Steph Lady and Frank Darabont’s script certainly comes closer to Mary Shelley’s novel than do either of James Whale’s Frankenstein moviesrestoring the framing story that takes place in the arctic circle and giving the monster more of a human intelligence and sensibilitymost of the feminist implications of the novel seem lost on Branagh and his writers, who’ve replaced them with homoerotic overtones and other distortions. Robert De Niro does a fine job of impersonating the monster, but the choppy storytelling deprives his performance of the resonance it deserves, and Branagh himself as Frankenstein emerges as muddled and ill defined. With Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, and John Cleese. R, 128 min. (JR)… Read more »

The War

Though it’s ridiculous on many levels, especially as a story that purports to be set in the Mississippi backwoods in 1970, this movie about a Vietnam vet (Kevin Costner) suffering from posttraumatic stress who tries to rebuild his life and establish a home for his family manages to succeed at times in spite of itself. The main emphasis here is on the feuds and friendships formed by his kids with other local children, some of them black, in relation to a tree house that serves as a fort, which ultimately leads to a rather overblown climax. Directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) from a script by Kathy McWorter, the movie often shows more heart than head (the implied parallels of the kids’ skirmishes with the war in Vietnam, glimpsed in a few flashbacks, are never clearly worked out), but the force of some of the performancesby LaToya Chisholm, Elijah Wood, and Mare Winningham as well as Costnerhave a lingering impact. With Lexi Randall, Christine Baranski, Bruce A. Young, and Charlette Julius. (JR)… Read more »

Le Samourai

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 story of a lonely hit man (Alain Delon) is stylish and elegant, though not really the holy writ that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have claimed. Though Melville sustained himself with American-style thrillers in the last decade of his life, his best versions of American noir arguably remain the earlier ones in black and white (my own favorite is 1966′s Le deuxieme souffle). This one certainly has its moments (particularly the coordinated police chase through the Paris metro), but its women characters are faintly ridiculous, while the men are mainly suave icons. Henri Decae’s brilliant color cinematography finds something metallic blue gray in virtually every shot, and the film is alluring as long as one remains captivated by its mannerist and slightly monotonous style. Despite a hefty (and fabricated) quote from The Book of Bushido about the loneliness of the samurai, this is all about attitude and machismo rather than soul, which is why it winds up feeling somewhat flat. Based on Joan McLeod’s novel The Ronin; in French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Tracker

Ever since Rolf de Heer’s 2002 western was screened as the opening-night attraction at the Melbourne film festival, it’s been lodged in my memory as the best Australian feature I’ve seen in years. Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Rabbit-Proof Fence) gives the performance of a lifetime as a tracker helping three mounted police find a murder suspect in 1922, and though the film recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in its grim tale of pursuit, its poetic feeling for both history and landscape, and its contemporary score (by aboriginal singer-songwriter Archie Roach), it has an identity all its own. (One of its most original moves is cutting to paintings by Peter Coad, specially commissioned for the film, at every moment of violence.) With Gary Sweet and Grant Page. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Rituals

Adapted from a 1980 novel by Cees Nooteboom that has been through 11 editions in Holland and translated into eight languages, Herbert Curiel’s Dutch feature describes the gradual re-education of an upper-class womanizer and art dealer (Derek De Lint) who loses most of his money in the stock market and meets the relatively impoverished rejected son of a family friend (Thom Hoffman) who teaches him another way of looking at life’s everyday rituals. Accompanied by a dry and occasionally witty offscreen, first-person narration, the plot is largely a series of philosophical monologues and dialogues, but Curiel’s actors and his effective use of Amsterdam settings give it more than an abstract, cerebral interest. Nothing earthshaking, but a respectable and watchable piece of work, made with craft and intelligence. (JR)… Read more »

Queens Logic

The form and the material couldn’t be more familiar: a bachelor party in Queens that brings together several working-class childhood friends, very much in the manner of something like Diner. What makes it sparkle is the cornucopia of actors’ shtick provided by the talented cast: Joe Mantegna, John Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, Linda Fiorentino, Tom Waits, Ken Olin, Chloe Webb, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Steve Rash directed Tony Spiridakis’s script as if we haven’t already received its gist countless times before, and the actors somehow managed to follow suit. (JR)… Read more »

La Puritaine

Conceptually one of the most interesting of Jacques Doillon’s features, this 1986 film is set almost entirely inside a theater. While awaiting the return of his estranged daughter Manon (Sandrine Bonnaire), a stage director (Michel Piccoli) asks his young mistress (Sabine Azema) to act out various versions of the anticipated reunion, then summons several young actresses to embody different aspects or portions of Manonher eyes, voice, hands, ears, and so on. Manon herself makes an appearance during these improvisations, yet the theatrical games continue, until a heated confrontation between father and daughter finally takes place. While the puritan of the title is supposed to be Manon, whose estrangement from her father is related to her puritanism, the Bergman-esque guilt and sexual angst that seem so much a part of Doillon’s world appear to rebound on the filmmaker as well. Using theater as an indirect metaphor for his own activity as a director, Doillon is well served by William Lubtchansky’s camera work and the powerful talents of his three leads; even though the plot seems at times strangely external to his main concerns, the mise en scene and psychodrama that he enacts carry considerable dramatic voltage. (JR)… Read more »