Yearly Archives: 1994

Consuming Passions

Swiftian satirespecifically, A Modest Proposalseems to be the model for this grim farce by Monty Python’s Michael Palin and Terry Jones about the accidental discovery at a chocolate factory that human bodies in the vats make for better sales. Squarely aimed at Thatcherism in general and cynical business greed in particular, this project sorely needs a talent on the order of Terry Gilliam in order to register its political point with the proper clarity and bite. What it gets instead is limp and unfocused direction from Giles Foster that can’t distinguish between overarching concepts and incidental slapstick details: everything gets the same coarse inflection, and alas, practically nothing works. With Tyler Butterworth, Vanessa Redgrave (the funniest actor on board, as a sexually voracious Maltese widow), Jonathan Pryce, Freddie Jones, and Sammi Davis. (JR)… Read more »

The Conformist

In retrospect, Bernardo Bertolucci’s highly influential fifth feature (1969)ravishing to the eye but less than fully satisfying to the mindcan be regarded as the lamentable turning point in an extremely promising career that ultimately chose stylishness over style and both over content. Following on the heels of his much superior The Spider’s Strategem and adapted from an Alberto Moravia novel set in 1938, this political thriller follows an Italian professor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who’s recoiling from his own homosexual impulses as he agrees to work as a police agent during his honeymoon in Paris and assist in the assassination of his former mentor, now a dedicated antifascist. With Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda, Gastone Moschin, and Pierre Clementi. In Italian and French with subtitles. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Combination Platter

An illegal immigrant from Hong Kong (Jeff Lau), struggling to speak English and desperate for a green card, goes to work at a Chinese restaurant in Queens in this independent first feature (1993) by Tony Chan, written with Edwin Baker. I was won over from the beginning by its engaging artlessness, its unpolished acting and less-than-action-packed story. If you’ve ever wondered how Chinese restaurants operate, this modest, bilingual (English and Chinese, with various characters speaking both Cantonese and Mandarin dialects) comedy-drama gives you a comprehensive idea, and the cast of charactersincluding a Chinese American clerk who doesn’t speak Chinese, a waiter beleaguered by gambling debts, and a shy Caucasian woman the hero is talked into datingkeeps things hopping. (JR)… Read more »

The Actor

This 1993 film by the eclectic and talented Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed) is a contemporary, semitragic farce about a burly film actor who wants to play only in art films but is forced by his family’s economic demands to act in a string of trashy commercial movies. His tormented wife, infertile and obsessed with having a baby, insists that her husband marry and impregnate a second wife, a deaf-mute Gypsy, to provide them with a child. What keeps this picture frenetic, apart from the hysterical action and the satirical treatment of Iranian media, is the couple’s surreal, high-tech home and Makhmalbaf’s hyperbolic, eccentric mise en scene, which fit together hand in glove (as they were undoubtedly designed to do). The three lead actors–Akbar Abdi (playing some version of himself), Fatemeh Motamed Aria, and Mahaya Petrossian–were all in Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf’s previous feature, and there appear to be some cross-references (such as the hero’s Chaplin worship), but here the tone is more caustic, the inventiveness more pointed. The meanings of both films are less than entirely clear, but my hunch is that each is a comic allegory about the rift between traditional and contemporary Iran, in which class differences and cultural differences are equally pertinent.… Read more »

Freedom on My Mind

A conventionally made documentary about the Mississippi Voter Registration Project, which existed from 1961 to 1964, this is special because of the precise sense of time and place it manages to impart through archival footage and recent interviews, as well as for the exemplary history lesson it offers about a key branch of the civil rights struggle. Produced and directed by Connie Field (The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter) and Marilyn Mulford and written and edited by Michael Chandler, it not only offers a welcome corrective to the multiple obfuscations of Mississippi Burning; it also furnishes the viewer with enough solid information to reevaluate the subject intelligently. (Whether you regard the civil rights movement as a whole as a success or as a failure, chances are you’ll have a more complicated view after seeing this.) Among the interview subjects are many Mississippi activists (including Victoria Gray, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, L.C. Dorsey, and Curtis Hayes) as well as those who came to the scene from other states (including Bob Moses, Marshall Ganz, and Pam Chude Allen), and the story they have to tell remains an essential part of our history. This won the grand jury prize for best documentary at the 1994 Sundance film festival.… Read more »


This 1994 SF film starts out suggesting 2001 and winds up recalling Flash Gordon. In between, it proceeds fairly enjoyably on the level of a minor Forbidden Planetpleasurable for some of its vistas, its overall scenic design, and its unself-conscious naivete about displaying otherworldliness, but not very nourishing or satisfying to the mind. James Spader plays an archaeologist specializing in Egyptian ruins who’s invited to join a secret military team, headed by Kurt Russell, that’s investigating a curious artifact uncovered in Giza. It proves to be a gizmo planted on earth centuries ago that serves as a doorway to a planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. Most of the remainder of the movie is set on this desert outpost, which has three moons and is lorded over by an androgynous despot (The Crying Game’s Jaye Davidson). The adventure and spectacle tend to be more sustaining than the speculative anthropology. Directed by Roland Emmerich from a script he wrote with Dean Devlin; with Viveca Lindfors, Alexis Cruz, Mili Avital, and John Diehl. (JR)… Read more »

The Road To Wellville

Alan Parker’s flair for vulgar showmanship pays off in his funny, entertaining 1994 adaptation of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel. The movie’s set in 1907 in Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, which is presided over by pre-New Age guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins). Healththe open sesame of the sucker’s purse, says a con man played by Michael Lerner, and while Parker’s satirical viewpoint encompasses this judgment and plenty of chicanery, it’s also sympathetic enough in the bargain to honor the sincerity of fanatics like Kellogg and many of his patients. Among the other leading characters are a dysfunctional married couple played by Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick who check into the sanitarium and wind up getting various forms of sex therapy (inadvertent and otherwise), Kellogg’s rebellious adopted son (Dana Carvey), and a young entrepreneur in town (John Cusack) who’s interested in becoming a breakfast cereal tycoon. The treatment of period is both fanciful and highly enjoyable, and if the story seems to run out of both ideas and energy before the end, it’s still an entertaining ride most of the way. With Colm Meaney, John Neville, Lara Flynn Boyle, Traci Lind, and Camryn Manheim. (JR)… Read more »

Drop Squad

This bewildering 1994 first feature by David Johnson, written by Johnson and Butch Robinson and inspired in part by Ellis Cose’s book Rage of a Privileged Class, is about a secret black organization known as the DROP Squad (DROP being an acronym for Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride), which kidnaps black people who’ve allegedly sold out their culture and community and deprograms them through brainwashing and other forms of torture. Part of what’s bewildering is that the movie seems mainly to endorse this form of de facto terrorism but never builds a coherent case for either its justice or its effectiveness. Produced and subsequently recut by Spike Lee, the movie may suffer from a collision of viewpoints and approaches; as it stands, the material is provocative but confusing. With Eriq LaSalle, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ving Rhames, Vanessa Williams, and Kasi Lemmons. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Not Different, Just Not the Same

To the editors:

When I wrote last week that Pulp Fiction was only “the flip side” of Forrest Gump, an editor took this to mean “the opposite” rather than another version of the same thing, and changed the text accordingly. Sorry for any resulting confusion.

Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

Hoop Dreams

This epic, compulsively watchable 169-minute documentary about two Chicago inner-city basketball whizzes, William Gates and Arthur Agee, striving to land the grades and the scholarships to make it to the big time (and stay there) is a heady dose of the American Dream and the American nightmare combined–a numbing investigation of how one point on an exam or one basket or fumble in a game can make all the difference in a family’s fortune. It’s a depressing (albeit energizing) saga that often feels like a noncomic application of the worldview of Preston Sturges. Chicago filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert, with coproducers Kartemquin Films and Minnesota’s KCTA TV, spent seven years tracking the lives and careers of their two principals, and there’s little doubt that the presence of the camera and filmmakers becomes part of the unfolding story (a fact that the movie might have acknowledged a little more). Even if you’re as bored by team sports as I am, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this memorable cast of characters and the action-packed story, which speaks volumes about the way we live and think and what we do to others and ourselves in the process.… Read more »

Helas pour moi

Jean-Luc Godard’s most spiritual film to date (1991) is also his most opaque; if you’re looking for a paraphrasable plot, don’t come near this. But the beauty of his work — framed image and Dolby sound, all shot and recorded in rural Switzerland — is often breathtaking, and I’d much rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg addressing half the planet. The poems and reflections of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and the Greek myth about Zeus impersonating and cuckolding Amphytrion, especially as treated by Jean Giraudoux — both having to do with cosmic injustice and the relationship between love and war — are two of the principal points of reference. Gerard Depardieu, who turns up in a village wearing a raincoat and carrying the London Observer, is the Amphytrion figure, and Zeus is a croaking voice on the sound track, dimly reminiscent of the voice of the computer in Alphaville. I also spotted references to Kierkegaard, Hitchcock’s I Confess (known as La loi de silence in French), and Straub-Huillet’s From the Cloud to the Resistance and Antigone. But for all its hermetic poetry and esoteric mysticism, the film also has concrete things to say about the bombing of Baghdad and the slaughter in Bosnia.… Read more »

The Importance of Being Sarcastic [SATANTANGO]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1994). Bela Tarr, who arrived in Zagreb yesterday to join Abel Ferrara, myself, and others (including many students and staff members from Film.Factory) at Tanja Vrvilo’s tenth annual Movie Mutations event, will be showing Satantango here today and then discussing it. — J.R.



Directed by Bela Tarr

Written by Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai

With Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Erika Bok, Peter Berling, Miklos B. Szekely, Laszlo Fe Lugossy, Eva Almasi Albert, Alfred Jaray, Erzsebet Gaal, Janos Derzsi, and Iren Szajki.

If great films invent their own rules, reinventing some of the standards of film criticism in the process, Bela Tarr’s Satantango surely belongs in their company. Showing Sunday as part of the Chicago Film Festival, this very dark Hungarian black comedy has more than a few tricks and paradoxes up its sleeve. Shot in black and white, with a running time of just under seven hours (it’s designed to be shown with two short intermissions), it boasts a decrepit, squalid rural setting enveloped in constant rain and mud and a cast of about a dozen greedy, small-minded characters, none of whom has any remotely redeeming qualities. Yet over two separate viewings it has provided me with more pleasure, excitement, and even hope than any other new picture I’ve seen this year.… Read more »

I Like It Like That

This stunning debut is a first feature by writer-director Darnell Martin, and the first movie by a woman who grew up in a ghetto to be produced by a major studio. A raucous comedy-drama about a volatile Latino couple trying to raise their three kids and stay out of trouble–with the world and each other–in a Bronx ghetto, it manages a truce between Hollywood pizzazz and authenticity while positively jumping with energy (though it runs out of a little steam before the end). The charismatic heroine, played by Lauren Velez–a mulatto, like Martin–goes after a job with a recording executive (Griffin Dunne) after her husband (Jon Seda) tries to steal a stereo during a blackout and winds up in jail; among the other characters are her brother (Jesse Borrego), who’s a transvestite botanica owner, and her downstairs neighbor and worst enemy (Lisa Vidal), who’s an unwed mother trying to wangle away her husband. (Rita Moreno also does a delightful turn as her disapproving mother-in-law.) While keeping up a frenetic pace, the movie manages to speak thoughtfully about parenting, marital sex problems, jealousy, gossip, lotteries, record promotion, inner-city crime, and homophobia. It’s not common to find so much bombast and wisdom coexisting, but from the evidence offered here, Darnell Martin is an uncommon talent–offering an eyeful as well as an earful.… Read more »

Cinecopia Part 2

The lineup for the second week of the Chicago International Film Festival looks at least as good as the first, in some respects even better. I’m sorry to report that two of the best movies scheduled for last week, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water and Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, were canceled after the Reader went to press. Both were replaced by an Australian movie, The Sum of Us, that we weren’t able to review.

As we go to press this week, the word from the festival is that no further changes are anticipated, but if you want to be on the safe side, call the festival to be sure. (Last-minute changes and related screwups, I should add, are a bugaboo at virtually all film festivals, and though Chicago has had more than its fair share of them in the past, they’ve diminished in recent years.)

My own recommendations for the week, in rough order of preference, are Satantango (reviewed at length elsewhere in this section), The Leopard, Red, The Red Lotus Society, The Tarnished Angels, The Seventh Continent, Dear Diary, Through the Olive Trees, The Innocent, Dallas Doll, The Silences of the Palace, When Pigs Fly, The Troubles We’ve Seen, Ryaba, My Chicken, Family, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Too Much Happiness, and Paradjanov.… Read more »

Second Best

A rather glum, halfway interesting film, about a single man (William Hurt) living and working as a postmaster in a tiny Welsh village who decides to adopt a ten-year-old boya recalcitrant youngster who still reserves all his emotional loyalty for his real father in prison. Directed by former cinematographer Chris Menges from a script by David Cook adapting his own novel, this is impressive mainly for Hurt’s finely shaded and wholly committed performance. With Keith Allen (also fine as the boy), Prunella Scales, Jane Horrocks (Life Is Sweet), and Alan Cumming. (JR)… Read more »