Monthly Archives: February 1995

Once Were Warriors

A gritty, powerful first feature by Lee Tamahori, a director with a Maori father and a European mother, adapted by Maori playwright Riwia Brown from a popular novel by Alan Duff. The film focuses on a contemporary Maori family living in urban New Zealand and steeped in violencethe family includes an abusive but passionate father, a volatile but devoted wife, and, among the children, one gang member, one son at reform school, and an intellectually ambitious teenage daughter. Reportedly the original novel is stream of consciousness, switching between family members in the manner of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Brown was brought in to tell the story mainly from the viewpoint of the wife. At once upsetting and highly involving, it packs an undeniable punch. With Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, and Julian Sonny Arahanga. (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Of Roan Inish

To my ears at least, writer-director John Sayles does an impressive job of impersonating traditional Irish storytellers in this sweet-tempered if slightly dull piece of magical realism (1994, 103 min.), which he adapted from Rosalie K. Fry’s 1957 novella Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry and filmed on Ireland’s west coast. A little girl is sent to live with her grandparents; her grandfather tells her a story about the disappearance of her baby brother when a wave carried away his cradle, and after her 13-year-old cousin suggests that the boy is still sailing in it around the remote island Roan Inish, the girl gets an opportunity to explore the island, finding a few traces of human habitation. This is all rather low-key and uninsistent, but the settings are gorgeous, and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography makes the most of them. With Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, Richard Sheridan, and John Lynch. (JR)… Read more »

Call Me Madam

In addition to being a good many other things, Francoise Romand’s first three feature-length films are poetic and highly original meditations about personal identity. Neither as dense nor as inventive as Mix-Up (1985), the film that preceded it, and without the degree of experimentation and lyricism that makes Past Imperfect (1994) such a haunting experience, Call Me Madam (1986) is nonetheless a provocative and memorable work. (Starting with this one, the Film Center is showing all three films with Romand in attendance, offering an invaluable introduction to a major filmmaker.) It’s a multifaceted portrait of Ovida Delect–a communist poet and novelist living near Rouen who’s published close to 40 books. Tortured by the Gestapo at 17 as a member of the French underground and honored by Paul Eluard, she’s a 60-year-old who had a sex-change operation at the age of 55. Formerly known as Jean-Pierre Voidies, she continues to live with her former wife and 20-year-old son, both of whom reveal some of the difficulties they’ve encountered living with such a singular and egocentric individual. As with Mix-Up, Romand labels this film a “fictional documentary” because its subject and style relate to Delect’s self-image as well as her objective reality. Indeed Delect controls Call Me Madam just as she controls her own persona, depriving the film of the free-ranging imagination of Romand’s other two features.… Read more »

The Preminger Enigma

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1995). — J.R.

One of the strangest things about the elusive career of Otto Preminger (1905-1986) is that it remains elusive not because of the man’s invisibility but because of his relative omnipresence in the public eye. Though never as familiar as Alfred Hitchcock, he cut an imposing figure in the media, registering much more than either John Ford or Howard Hawks. Preminger was well known for his Nazi roles in Margin for Error (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953), for appearing in TV guest spots on Batman and Laugh-In and numerous talk shows, as a colorful player in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and for grabbing headlines as the man who defied the Production Code of the 50s and the lingering Hollywood blacklist of the 60s while grandly mounting well-publicized movie versions of best-sellers like Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, and The Cardinal. Since he was one of the first of the high-profile American independents after the heyday of Griffith and Chaplin and moved from Hollywood to New York in the early 50s and never shifted his home base later, in most people’s minds he was more producer than director.… Read more »

A Time to Live and a Time to Die

A reflective autobiographical film (1985) about filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s youth in the late 40s and early 50s. Largely filmed in the same places in Taiwan where the events originally happened, this unhurried family chronicle carries an emotional force and a historical significance that may not be immediately apparent. Working in long takes and wide-screen, deep focus compositions that frame the characters from a discreet distance, Hou allows the locations to seep into our own memories and experience, so that, as in Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Tian’s The Blue Kite, we come to know them almost as intimately as touchstones in our own lives. Yet paradoxically, the unseen Chinese mainland carries as much weight in the film as the landscape of Taiwan: Hou’s Christian family left in 1948, and the revolution that followed made it impossible for them to return. Subtly interweaving everyday details with processes and understandings that evolve over years, the film conveys a density of familial detail that we usually encounter only in certain novels, and a sense of the tragic within hailing distance of Ozu. This was the first film by Hou I ever saw, and it provides an excellent introduction to his work as a whole.… Read more »

The Moon Is Blue

In the first of his independent features as producer-director (1953) Otto Preminger adapts his most successful stage production, a light romantic comedy by F. Hugh Herbert that ran for over 900 performances. Released without production code approval and condemned by the Legion of Decency for its use of such taboo phrases as “virgin,” “seduce,” and “pregnant,” none of which bothered anyone in the stage run, it’s regarded today mainly as a curio. Yet for all the movie’s staginess and datedness, it’s a more personal and ambiguous work than it initially appears to be. Architect William Holden ogles and picks up “professional virgin” Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building and brings her back to his apartment, where his next-door neighbors–his former girlfriend (Dawn Addams) and her playboy father (David Niven)–quickly involve this potential couple in various intrigues. A certain prurient (as well as analytical) curiosity in Preminger’s distanced and mobile camera style makes McNamara seem slightly corrupt and Holden and Niven slightly innocent, despite all appearances to the contrary, and the sour aftertaste to this frothy material is an important part of what keeps the picture interesting. Incidentally, Preminger simultaneously shot a German-language version of the same film, the stars of which have cameos in the last scene of the American version.… Read more »

Remembering Ron

From the Chicago Reader, February 10, 1995. — J.R.

TheLastTimeISawRon

Ron Vawter (1948-1994), who died of AIDS, was one of those rare actors who, like Tilda Swinton in England and the late Delphine Seyrig in France, remained equally active in commercial and experimental productions. He played the psychiatrist in sex, lies, and videotape and appeared in such Hollywood features as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. But Vawter also played the male lead in Mark Rappaport’s ground-breaking and visually stunning Postcards and in Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Made in Hollywood (both from 1990) and appeared with Willem Dafoe and other members of the Wooster Group in Ken Kobland’s elegantly creepy and cadaverous video Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It (1986), a series of surrealist tableaux presented with diverse sound elements. Remembering Ron includes the Rappaport and Kobland tapes, a ten-minute excerpt from Made in Hollywood (unfortunately too fragmented to give much sense of the whole), and Leslie Thornton’s brand-new The Last Time I Saw Ron. This powerful memoir combines glimpses of Vawter in a Belgian stage production, Philoktetes Variations, with diverse kinds of found and new footage and uncanny sound effects.… Read more »

Gypsy Melodies

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1995). –J.R.

Latcho Drom

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tony Gatlif.

If you haven’t heard of Latcho Drom — an exuberant and stirring Gypsy musical, filmed in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound in eight countries on three separate continents — you shouldn’t be surprised. Although the movie has been wending its way across the planet for the past couple of years and picking up plenty of enthusiasts en route, it has at least three commercial strikes against it, any one of which would probably suffice to keep it out of the mainstream despite its accessibility. The first two of these are the words “Gypsy” and “musical”; the third is the fact that it qualifies as neither documentary nor fiction, thereby confounding critics and other packagers.

These “problems,” I hasten to add, are what make the picture pleasurable, thrilling, and important; but media hype to the contrary, sales pitches and audience enjoyment aren’t always on the same wavelength. Though this movie is so powerful you virtually have to force yourself not to dance during long stretches of it, that fact doesn’t translate easily into a 30-second prime-time spot or a review in a national magazine (though CNN did devote a four-minute feature to Latcho Drom some time ago).… Read more »

News From Home

An early experimental feature by Chantal Akerman (1976, 85 min.) that juxtaposes images of New York City with the texts of letters written to Akerman by her mother in Belgium and read aloud offscreen by Akerman. This is one of the best depictions of the alienation of exile that I know. (JR)… Read more »

Before The Rain

This striking and ambitious 1994 Macedonian feature by Milcho Manchevski, a filmmaker trained at Southern Illinois University, won the best-film prize at Venice and gained a big reputation at other festivalsmore, it seems, for the timely issues of ethnic and religious warfare it deals with than for overall dramatic or thematic coherence (though it certainly has its strong moments). Telling three interconnected stories set in Macedonia and London, the film begins with a girl hiding out in a Macedonian monastery and then shifts to the emotional conflicts of a woman in London (Naked’s Katrin Cartlidge) leaving her husband and coming back into contact with a former lover, a Macedonian war photographer just back from Bosnia. The final story deals with the photographer’s return to his native country. With Rade Serbedzija, Gregoire Colin, and Labina Mitevska. In English and subtitled Albanian and Macedonian. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Brady Bunch Movie

In her first feature as a director, former Second City performer Betty Thomas mounts a big-screen version of the TV show. It’s set in suburban Los Angeles in 1994, though the 70s still reign at home, and the movie is every bit as one-dimensional about the present as the original show was about the past. (Satire here mainly consists of ridiculing the Bradys for not keeping up with fashion and purchasing the right products.) A curiously sour movie in its amused contempt for this fatuous family laced with affectionate nostalgia for its unshakable slickness and insularity, but also an undeniably strange one in its adoption of TV formats and cliches, as if these were the only indexes of contemporary reality that we have left. If you’re 30 or under, chances are the movie will be charged with significance; if you’re older, it won’t seem very different from the recent movie versions of The Flintstones and The Beverly Hillbillies. Shelley Long and Gary Cole are the parents, and their six kids are played by unknowns; written by Laurice Elehwany, Rick Copp, and Bonnie and Terry Turner. (JR)… Read more »

Strawberry And Chocolate

Neither fish nor fowl, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s touching yet compromised depiction of the persecution of gays in 1979 Havana was directed in collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio when Alea became ill. It opts for an extremely broad depiction of gay mannerisms and tastes in its treatment of a campy but committed dilettante whom the hero, a university student and ardent communist, comes into contact with. Controversial in Cuba yet only mildly polemical by American standards, this 1993 movie is entertaining and evocative both as storytelling and as a description of intellectual life in Havana, but it also borders on the obvious in certain particulars. Written by Senel Paz; with Jorge Perrugoria, Vladimir Cruz, Mirta Ibarra, and Francisco Calorno. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

An Unforgettable Summer

A stylistically graceful period piece (1994) by Romanian filmmmaker Lucian Pintilie (The Oak), based on a short story by Petru Dumitriu and set in 1925. When the aristocratic wife of an army captain resists the advances of a general, her husband’s superior angrily transfers the captain and his family to a remote garrison in a border town, where he’s ordered to shoot randomly selected Bulgarian villagers. The interface of class and military positions in a context of ethnic diversity is the overall theme, and Pintilie treats it with some sensitivity. With Kristin Scott Thomas, Claudiu Bleont, and Marcel Iures. (JR)… Read more »

Monbo – or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion

A broad satirical farce (1992) by Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) about the efforts of a luxury hotel in Tokyo to rid itself of yakuza who are using the place as a hangout. These efforts prove ineffectual, thanks to the gangsters’ not-so-gentle art of intimidation, until the hotel hires a lawyer (Nobuku Miyamoto, Itami’s wife and frequent leading lady) who’s well versed in the problems involved and who plans various counterattacks. Eventually this picture turns solemn and serious in order to hammer home points that are made more effectively through comedy, and there’s a corny Western-elevator-music score (broken only occasionally by sinister patches of percussion) that may set your teeth on edge. But one sign of the relevance of this movie is that Itami was brutally attacked by three gangsters less than a week after it opened in Japan, leaving him with permanent scars he now wears as badges of honor. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 3 through 9.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Still.… Read more »

Latcho Drom

This difficult-to-categorize masterpiece by Tony Gatlif (1993) is many things at once: a Gypsy “docu-musical” (actually an adroit mixture of documentary and fiction) in ‘Scope and stereo featuring musicians, singers, and dancers from India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain; an epic account of Gypsy migrations over the past thousand years; a political statement about Gypsy persecution that never descends into bitterness; a poetic evocation of the passing seasons; and a gorgeously filmed and edited compilation of some of the most joyous, soulful, and energizing music and dancing you’re likely to encounter, taking on the musical forms and styles of each successive country (including Django Reinhardt-style jazz in France and flamenco in Spain). All this is threaded together so subtly and expressively by Gatlif (himself a Gypsy), with a minimum of speech and narration, that the music and filmmaking often seem indissoluble. When dogs bark or the camera cranes up exuberantly into the treetops, it’s every bit as musical and rhythmic as the performances, and the pulse is so infectious that you may feel like dancing. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 3 through 9.… Read more »