Monthly Archives: May 1995

The Perez Family

Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala) directs an adaptation by Robin Swicord of a novel by Christine Bell, yielding a comedy about Cuban immigrants in Miami that is consistently pleasurable for its lead performances by Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Chazz Palminteri, and Anjelica Huston. The story concerns a former political prisoner (Molina) who hasn’t seen his wife (Huston) and daughter (Trini Alvarado) in two decades. Though the circumstances delaying their reunion seem a little contrived in spots, the details about what Cuban immigrants have to contend with and the spirited riffs of the actors keep this busy and bubbling. With Celia Cruz and Lazaro Perez. Ford City, Lake, Webster Place, Evanston, Norridge, Chestnut Station, Plaza.… Read more »

Pasolini’s Second Coming [on MAMMA ROMA]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 1995). — J.R.

Mamma Roma

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Pier Paolo Pasolini

With Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini, Luisa Orioli, Paolo Volponi, Luciano Gonini, Vittorio La Paglia, and Piero Morgia.

Who can predict the changes in intellectual fashion over 20 years? In 1975, when the controversial Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old boy in a Roman suburb, he was no more in vogue than he had been throughout his stormy career. If any openly gay writer-director was an international star in the mid-70s, it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who at that point was spinning out as many as three or four features a year; he died in 1982 after an orgy of cocaine abuse.

Pasolini and Fassbinder were both maverick leftists who often alienated other leftists as well as everyone on the right, and both had a taste for rough trade, but in terms of their generations (Pasolini was born in 1922, Fassbinder in 1946) and cultural reference points they were radically different. The only reason to compare them now is to note how much their reputations and visibility have changed here over the last two decades.… Read more »

Looking for Fun

Also known as For Fun, a title I prefer, this is a delightful comedy from mainland China (1992) about grumbly old men, directed and cowritten by a young woman, Ning Ying, who studied film in both Beijing and Italy, was assistant director on The Last Emperor, and is currently director of the Beijing Film Studio. An old man is obliged to retire from his job as house manager for a local Peking Opera troupe, and after he finds a few opera buffs around his age in a park he organizes a club that meets in an abandoned hall. Working mainly with nonprofessionals, Ning shows a genuine flair for documentary-style shooting and humorous observation, though this is only her second feature. She’s clearly someone to watch. Adapted with Ning Dal from a novella by Chen Jiangong; with Huang Zongluo and Huang Wenjie. To be screened as part of the Silver Images Film Festival. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, May 20, 1:15, 281-4114 or 881-8491.… Read more »

The Last Good Time

A sturdily made and beautifully acted comedy-drama about aging from Bob Balaban, whose Parents showed him to be an imaginative director who knows what to do with a set and how to enter the worlds of lonely people. The story here, adapted by Balaban and John McLaughlin from a Richard Bausch novel, concerns a retired violinist (Armin Mueller-Stahl) living in Brooklyn who puts up a homeless former neighbor in her early 20s (Olivia d’Abo) and develops an unexpected relationship with her. His only friend–another former neighbor, now dying in a rest home–is played by the late Lionel Stander, one of the juiciest Hollywood character actors who ever lived. His fabulous swan song is reason enough to see this picture, though Balaban’s taste and intelligence and the warmth of the other cast members (including Maureen Stapleton, Adrian Pasdar, and Kevin Corrigan) provide further incentive. This is one of those rare American movies that know what they’re doing and where they’re going every step of the way. Esquire.

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

Alien Nation

French Kiss

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Written by Adam Brooks

With Meg Ryan, Kevin Kline, Timothy Hutton, Jean Reno, Francois Cluzet, Susan Anbeh, and Renee Humphrey.

The great Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch once remarked during the heyday of the studios, “There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris, and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all.” French Kiss offers a movie Paris of its own, but it isn’t one that belongs to any studio or director–or one that any Parisian would recognize. It belongs to this country, and it represents about two decades of bad faith–a copy of a copy of a stereotype, bred out of so much defensiveness and attitude that today anything approximating the real Paris has to be discarded for fear of disorienting the viewer.

After all, French Kiss is a standard-issue romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, the success of which depends on an audience feeling immediately comfortable wherever it happens to be taken. I can’t vouch for the writer, a Canadian named Adam Brooks, but I suspect that the director, acclaimed hack Lawrence Kasdan, is at least partially aware of the deception involved in making an audience comfortable.… Read more »

A Great Day in Harlem

There are only a few great jazz documentaries, and each has a style all its own. This one-hour 1994 dissection of a 1958 group photograph of 57 key jazz musicians, one of the opening attractions of the four-day Silver Images Film Festival, is special both as oral history and as a survey of the art. If you wanted to introduce someone to what jazz is all about, this would be an ideal place to start, a labor of love by jazz enthusiast and former Chicago journalist Jean Bach, who did an awesome job of tracking down the surviving participants in and witnesses to the picture taking, even locating some silent home-movie footage by bassist Milt Hinton and his wife. Included are elegant thumbnail profiles of such musicians as Lester Young, Jo Jones, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Russell, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, Horace Silver, Jimmy Rushing, Coleman Hawkins, Dicky Wells, and Stuff Smith, most of them offered by fellow musicians, along with samples of their music and comments on their placement in the photograph. On the same program, Kevin Segalla’s Notes (1994), Natalie Cash’s Blues in C (1994), and one of the other great jazz documentaries, Gjon Mili’s arty but exciting Jammin’ the Blues (1950), which includes prime performances by Lester Young and Jo Jones.… Read more »

The Last Good Time

A sturdily made and beautifully acted comedy-drama about aging from Bob Balaban, whose Parents showed him to be an imaginative director who knows what to do with a set and how to enter the worlds of lonely people. The story here, adapted by Balaban and John McLaughlin from a Richard Bausch novel, concerns a retired violinist (Armin Mueller-Stahl) living in Brooklyn who puts up a homeless former neighbor in her early 20s (Olivia d’Abo) and develops an unexpected relationship with her. His only friendanother former neighbor, now dying in a rest homeis played by the late Lionel Stander, one of the juiciest Hollywood character actors who ever lived. His fabulous swan song is reason enough to see this picture, though Balaban’s taste and intelligence and the warmth of the other cast members (including Maureen Stapleton, Adrian Pasdar, and Kevin Corrigan) provide further incentive. This is one of those rare American movies that know what they’re doing and where they’re going every step of the way. (JR)… Read more »

The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain

Drawing upon a legend in his own Welsh family history, writer-director Christopher Monger (Waiting for the Light) comes up with a quaint little comic tale about the interactions between two English mapmakers (Hugh Grant and Ian McNeice) and the prideful Welsh village of Ffynnon Garw in 1917. The results are self-amused and pitched to tourists (rather like John Ford’s The Quiet Man in respect to Ireland), but the scenery is lovely and the folksy period ambience is tolerable if you can put up with the vats of malarkey. With Tara Fitzgerald, Colm Meaney, Ian Hart, Kenneth Griffith, and Tudor and Hugh Vaughn. (JR)… Read more »

The Perez Family

Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala) directed this 1995 adaptation of Christine Bell’s novel about Cuban immigrants in Miami. Consistently pleasurable for its lead performances (by Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Chazz Palminteri, and Anjelica Huston) it concerns a former political prisoner (Molina) who hasn’t seen his wife (Huston) and daughter (Trini Alvarado) in two decades. The circumstances delaying their reunion seem a little contrived in spots, but the details about what Cuban immigrants have to contend with and the actors’ spirited riffs keep this busy and bubbling. With Celia Cruz and Lazaro Perez. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crimson Tide

Quentin Tarantino did an uncredited polish of the dialogue of this very silly submarine thrillera bit of cold-war nostalgia set in the present, seemingly derived from The Bedford Incident of 1965, with Gene Hackman taking over the Richard Widmark part as dictatorial captain and Denzel Washington replacing Sidney Poitier as the desperate liberal. One hopes it wasn’t Tarantino (or the similarly uncredited Robert Towne and Steven Zaillian) who dreamed up the phrase a violation of nuclear launch protocol, which sounds like a line from Dr. Strangelove and is actually used here at a military hearing without a trace of irony. Behind all the macho bluster stand (or, it would appear, sit) director Tony Scott, writers Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, trying (and failing) to get all the characters to behave like grown-ups. With George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, and an uncredited Jason Robards. (JR)… Read more »

Swimming With Sharks

Originally known as The Buddy Factor, writer-director George Huang’s repulsive low-budget first feature purports to tell us something about the movie business, but all that it actually has on its mind is a plodding S and M scenario about a cruel and crass producer (Kevin Spacey) berating and humiliating his young executive assistant (Frank Whaley) until the latter decides to take brutal revenge. None of the characters is believable or interesting, and despite the imposture that one is being offered an infotainment special a la The Player full of inside smarts, this is too bereft of imagination, detail, and wit to offer much edification to any but the extremely gullible (and aficionados of humiliation). With Michelle Forbes (1994, 101 min.). (JR)… Read more »

Sex and the Single Codger (THE LAST GOOD TIME)

This appeared in the May 5, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Last Good Time

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Bob Balaban

Written by Balaban and John McLaughlin

With Armin Mueller-Stahl,Olivia d’Abo, Lionel Stander,Maureen Stapleton, Kevin Corrigan, Adrian Pasdar, and Zohra Lampert.

Bob Balaban, a native Chicagoan who’s best known as a prolific movie and stage actor, has directed only three features to date. I haven’t seen his second feature, My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which some people tell me I’m better off having missed, but Parents, his first, was one of the most auspicious debuts of 1989.

Despite the radical differences between Parents and The Last Good Time in terms of genre, subject, style, and tone, they’re clearly the work of the same filmmaker. Part of this has to do with a precise feeling for place and a profound grasp of what sitting alone in a room feels like, even when other people are present. The solitary character in Parents is a ten-year-old boy who’s living with his parents in tacky 50s American suburbia. The monstrous (if typical) ranch-style house where they live is seen basically just as the boy experiences it — an expressionist, wide-angle nightmare etched in “cherry pink and apple blossom white” (to quote the song heard over the opening credits) that matches his parents’ taste and hypocrisy.… Read more »

No More Sweets for You

The main message of this interesting program of 16 short films and videos selected by Chicagoan Elisabeth Subrin–nearly all of them by artists under 30 from around the country–seems to be that minimalism is finally over. An exception may be Sadie Benning’s black-and-white German Song, a rarity in that it’s a music video that breathes, but my two favorites among the seven I’ve seen–Cauleen Smith’s Chronicles of a Lying Spirit and Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Aletheia–are busy works that bombard the viewer with material and information. Smith’s film recycles cacophonous combinations of sound, images, and words as it sketches the history of blacks in America as if it all happened to a single individual; Kim-Trang’s work, even more experimental, begins by exploring the cosmetic surgery undergone by some Asian women to alter their eyelids and proceeds to broader reflections about westernization, blindness, race, and sexuality through the use of clips, quotations, maps, and different kinds of raw footage. The other artists in the show, eight of whom are Chicagoans, are Nancy Andrews, Tammy Rae Carland, Amanda Cole, Shari Frilot, Leah Gilliam, Sean Kryston, Laura Nix, Helen Mirra, Jeanine Oleson, Jennifer Reeves, Jon Schluenz, Kirsten Stoltman, and Kristen Thiele. Randolph St. Gallery, 756 N.… Read more »

Final Accord

My favorite Douglas Sirk film–made in Germany in 1936, when he was still known as Detlef Sierck–is a dazzlingly cinematic, fast-moving melodrama built around classical music; it’s alternately perverse, exalted, and delirious. Shuttling back and forth between New York and Berlin with an ease that suggests those cities were in closer proximity to each other in the 30s than they are today, the opening sequences present a destitute widow (Maria von Tasnady) recovering her will to live by listening to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the radio, broadcast live from Germany, where the conductor (Willy Birgel) is coincidentally in the process of adopting her little boy. When she returns to Berlin she goes to work as the boy’s nanny, concealing the fact that she’s his mother, while the conductor’s less musically inclined wife (Lil Dagover) tries to break free from an astrologer-blackmailer who’s threatening to expose her adultery with him. There’s also a creepy and seemingly malevolent maid, a climactic trial, and several sequences involving music and duplicity that produce some astonishing visual cadenzas and editing rhyme effects. (This is the film that inspired Sirk to note that camera angles “are a director’s thoughts” and “lighting is his philosophy.”) The movie was an enormous success in Germany when it came out, and it isn’t hard to understand why; it’s the finest Nazi-era fiction feature I’ve seen.… Read more »

French Kiss

Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline costar in a genuine odditya Francophobic romantic comedy set in France (1995). Ryan stays behind in Toronto when her fiance (Timothy Hutton) goes off to a medical conference in Paris, but when he phones to tell her he’s fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, she becomes so unhinged that she flies directly to Paris to win him back. Kline plays a French petty criminal sitting next to her on the plane who dupes her into getting involved with his smuggling scheme, and by the time they’ve visited his family’s vineyard and followed the fiance and his new girlfriend to Cannes, their own romance has started to blossom. The film’s almost systematic misrepresentations of France and the French, ranging from Kline’s accent to the geography of Paris and Cannes to the ways French people talk to one another, seem based less on stupidity than on cynical calculationthe realization that Americans are more comfortable with stereotypes than with real-life places and people. Ryan’s most winning quality, her sensuality, seems defeated by the project; but she’s one of the producers, so who’s to blame? Hollywood hack Lawrence Kasdan directed a script by Adam Brooks; with Jean Reno, Francois Cluzet, and Susan Anbeh.… Read more »