Monthly Archives: July 1995

Are We Not Sick? [on SAFE]

From the Chicago Reader, July 28, 1995. —J.R.

Safe

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Ronnie Farer, Martha Velez-Johnson, Chauncy Leopardi, and James LeGros.

I know that Americans are supposed to hate whatever they can’t understand, and certainly current Hollywood filmmaking is predicated to the point of tedium on this truism. But part of what makes Todd Haynes’s Safe the most provocative American art film of the year so far — fascinating, troubling, scary, indelible — is that it can’t be entirely understood. The mystery and ambiguity missing from mainstream movies are all the more precious, magical, even sexy here, in a 35-millimeter feature employing professional actors set partly in the plusher suburban reaches of the San Fernando Valley.

By chance the star of Safe, Julianne Moore, also plays the female lead in the least mysterious Hollywood feature of the moment, the unspeakable Nine Months — a movie that essentially celebrates the world that Safe attacks. This makes Haynes’s film even more dangerous: seeing both films might be like combining chemicals that produce lethal explosives. One suspects that anyone who sees both in swift succession will be flirting with social or political revolution or some sort of madness.… Read more »

Wild Reeds

Though I liked his criticism for Cahiers du Cinema in the 60s, on the basis of five of his early films I haven’t been a big fan of Andre Techine. But this wonderful and masterful feature (1994), his 12th, suggests that maybe he’d just been tooling up. It’s one of the best movies from an excellent French television series of fiction features on teenagers of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, and it’s the first to be released in the U.S. If Techine’s French Provincial (1974) evoked in some ways the Bertolucci of The Conformist, this account of kids living in southwest France in 1962, toward the end of the Algerian war, has some of the feeling, lyricism, and sweetness of Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution–though it’s clearly the work of someone much older and wiser. The main characters, all completing their baccalaureate exam at a boarding school, include a boy struggling with his homosexual desire for a close friend, an older student who’s a right-wing opponent of Algerian nationalism, and a communist girl, the daughter of one of the teachers, who befriends the homosexual and falls for the older student in spite of their violent political differences. One remembers these characters and others as vividly as old friends, and Techine’s handling of pastoral settings is as exquisite as his feeling for period.… Read more »

The Net

Director Irwin Winkler, who’d previously given us a political movie without politics (Guilty by Suspicion) and a remake of a classic noir without atmosphere or flavor (Night and the City), here gives us a thriller without thrills, though Sandra Bullock in the lead and the putative themethe paranoid possibility of deleting people’s public profiles from computer networksmay keep you intermittently interested. Bullock plays a lonely freelance hacker who accidentally stumbles upon a conspiracy that wipes out her identity during a vacation in Mexico. What’s really terrible here is the script credited to John Brancato and Michael Ferris and apparently written by a computer with identity problems of its own. Winkler doesn’t know how to transcend or circumvent it, and the mechanical music by the omnipresent Mark Isham doesn’t help much. With Jeremy Northam, Dennis Miller, and Diane Baker. (JR)… Read more »

Operation Dumbo Drop

A much better-than-average comedy-adventure and animal picture from Disney, set in South Vietnam in 1968 and inspired by a true story, about the mission of five Green Berets to transport an 8,000-pound elephant through 200 miles of jungle. This logistical nightmareinvolving travel by plane, parachute, truck, and boat as well as by footwas carried out for Montagnard villagers after the elephant they’d planned to use in a ceremony was accidentally killed. Leading the mission are two captains (Danny Glover and Ray Liotta) at temperamental loggerheads, and leading the elephant is a war orphan (Dinh Thien Le) suspicious of both of them; part of what makes this picture distinctive is a humanist treatment of the Vietnamese characters, North as well as South. Simon Wincer (Free Willy) does a fine job of keeping things both mobile and scenic, and the script by Gene Quintano and Jim Kouf has an old-fashioned sense of character and story development that kept me entertained; even when this picture is corny, it’s corny in a likable way. With Denis Leary, Doug E. Doug, and Corin Nemec. (JR)… Read more »

Jerks Like Us (GROSSE FATIGUE)

From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 1995). — J.R.

Grosse fatigue

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Michel Blanc

With Blanc, Carole Bouquet, Philippe Noiret, Josiane Balasko, Christian Clavier, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Wonders never cease. When Michel Blanc’s hilarious, vulgar farce Grosse fatigue won the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes film festival last year, the American press generally agreed that its chances of stateside distribution were just about nil. A nasty, abrasively funny insider’s look at contemporary French cinema, it was felt to be far too obscure in its references and far too politically incorrect, with its sexist and homophobic gags about rape, to find much favor among art-house patrons on this side of the Atlantic.

Proving us all wrong, Miramax is releasing the movie this week. I can only applaud their decision: offensive or not, Blanc’s fantasy/comedy qualifies in my book as a satire about the movie business far superior to The Player and Swimming With Sharks – two supposedly scathing looks at Hollywood that squander all their venom on a few west-coast executives with fancy ties and outsize salaries and let the audience that supports them neatly off the hook. Paradoxically, these American-made pictures argue that any system that supports people like these treacherous producer-villains has to be wrong, yet somehow they fail to broach the possibility that we in the audience could have anything to do with such a system ourselves.… Read more »

Bulletproof Heart

You’ve probably never heard of this crime picture and love story (1994), but it’s almost certainly the best American genre movie released so far this year–the sort of beautifully crafted personal effort that would qualify as a sleeper if our film industry still allowed sleepers to function as they did in the 50s. Given the kinky (and highly erotic) sex scenes and the quirky comedy, the expert handling of actors and the playful experimenting with both narrative form and genre expectations, one is tempted to compare writer-director Mark Malone to Quentin Tarantino. But in fact he stands Tarantino squarely on his head; this movie, originally titled Killer (and scripted for contractual reasons under a pseudonym), about the unexpected overnight awakening and humanizing of a cold-blooded hit man (Anthony LaPaglia) by his willing victim (Mimi Rogers) puts back the tenderness and conscience that Tarantino removed from his pulp sources, and does it with soul as well as style. Apart from the wonderful leads, Matt Craven and Peter Boyle are both inspired–and often very funny–in secondary parts. The story may wind up haunting you for days. Like the ad writers, I’m tempted to call this movie a noir, but since it isn’t misogynist that would be misleading.… Read more »

Grosse Fatigue

A very funny if mean-spirited French farce (1994) about the French film industry, with writer-director-star Michel Blanc (Menage, Monsieur Hire) playing himself. Boasting a certain metaphysical dimension as well as a satirical edge about the cult of show-biz celebrity and the decline of French cinema, this movie raises the possibility that vulgar look-alikes may be taking jobs away from the stars they’re imitating. Several international film personalities (ranging from Carole Bouquet and Philippe Noiret to Josiane Balasko, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Roman Polanski) have been induced to play themselves (or is it their doubles?), and if you can overlook the offensiveness of a few jokes about rape, you’re likely to enjoy the boisterous energy and cascading anger. Incidentally, this won a prize at Cannes for best screenplay. (JR)… Read more »

Kids

From noted still photographer-turned-director Larry Clark and young screenwriter Harmony Korine, both making their screen debuts, a slightly better than average youth exploitation film (and grim cautionary fable about both AIDS and macho teenage cruelty) that hysterical American puritanism contrived to convert into big news. (The New York Times’s Janet Maslin called this a wake-up call to the worldmeaning, I suppose, that rice paddy workers everywhere should shell out for tickets and stop evading the problems of white Manhattan teenagers.) But if the news is so big, why does it sound like such tired and familiar stuff? And reviewers who claimed that this depressing movie takes no moral position about what it’s depicting must have been experiencing some form of self-induced shock, because taking moral positions is just about all it does. The photography is striking and the acting and dialogue seem reasonably authentic, if one factors in all the sensationalism, but let’s get realthis was at best the 15th most interesting movie I saw at the 1995 Cannes festival. If you’re determined to succumb to the bait, I hope you have more fun than I did. With Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, and Chloe Sevigny. (JR)… Read more »

Bulletproof Heart

Almost certainly the best American genre movie of its year (1995)the sort of beautifully crafted personal effort that would qualify as a sleeper if our film industry still allowed such things. Given the kinky (and highly erotic) sex scenes and the quirky comedy, the expert handling of actors and the playful experimenting with both narrative form and genre expectations, one is tempted to compare writer-director Mark Malone to Quentin Tarantino. But in fact he stands Tarantino squarely on his head; this movie, originally titled Killer (and scripted for contractual reasons under a pseudonym), about the unexpected overnight awakening and humanizing of a cold-blooded hit man (Anthony LaPaglia) by his willing victim (Mimi Rogers), puts back the tenderness and conscience that Tarantino removed from his pulp sources, and does it with soul as well as style. Apart from the wonderful leads, Matt Craven and Peter Boyle are both inspiredand often very funnyin secondary parts. The story may wind up haunting you for days. I’m tempted to call this movie a noir, but since it isn’t misogynistic that would be misleading. Just see it before it disappears. (JR)… Read more »

Belle de jour

From the Chicago Reader (July 14, 1995). — J.R.

belle-de-jour

Though it may not reach the level of sublimity of his three last features, Luis Buñuel recounts the story of a frigid upper-class housewife (Deneuve), devoted to her husband (Jean Sorel), who secretly works at a high-class brothel every weekday afternoon in order to satisfy her masochistic impulses. Placing the heroine’s fantasies, dreams, and recollections on the same plane as her everyday adventures, Buñuel comes closer to the French New Wave than he did before or after, and much of his secondary cast reinforces this association (including Michel Piccoli, Macha Meril, and, most memorably, Pierre Clementi as a dandyish gangster), but there are also many explicit visual and aural echoes of his surrealist beginnings (Un chien andalou and L’age d’or). Haunting, amusing, provocative, teasing, and elegant in its puzzlelike ambiguities, this is essential viewing. With Genevieve Page, Francisco Rabal, Georges Marchal, and Francoise Fabian (a couple of years before Eric Rohmer “discovered” her in Ma nuit chez Maud). Fine Arts.

BelleDeJourRead more »

Manhattan by Numbers

The surprising thing about the first English-language feature (1993) of Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi (The Runner, Water, Wind, Sand) is that it has nothing at all to do with Iran or Iranians. Rather, it tells the story of a laid-off American newspaperman (John Wojda), separated from his wife and child and at the end of his economic resources, traveling across New York City in an effort to find enough money by the end of the day to keep himself from becoming homeless. It’s a realistic, keenly felt, and richly detailed movie about American urban life in the mid-90s, but what’s most striking about it is its power as poetry, as it delineates a landscape and the precise contours of a state of mind. This is a potent example of what Hollywood, which can’t seem to make movies about the world we’re living in, is studiously avoiding. The beautiful, original jazz score is by Gato Barbieri, the Brazilian musician best known for his score for Last Tango in Paris. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, July 15 and 16. … Read more »

Clueless

If you gave up on writer-director Amy Heckerling after Look Who’s Talking and its sequel, this 1995 comedyimprobably but cleverly adapted by Heckerling from Jane Austen’s Emmamight get you interested again. As in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, her first feature, Heckerling displays a nice feeling for teenagersteenage girls especiallyand some flair for witty dialogue. Here she’s concentrating on the travails of a wealthy but good-hearted Beverly Hills consumer (Alicia Silverstone) as she tries to establish a romance between two of her teachers (Wallace Shawn and associate producer Twink Caplan), make over a new transfer student (Brittany Murphy) with the help of her best friend (Stacey Dash), pass a driving test, and lose her virginity. Though this drifts at times as storytelling, it’s mainly lightweight but personable fun. With Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Jeremy Sisto, Julie Brown, and Dan Hedaya. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nine Months

Proof positiveif any is neededthat the films of writer-director-coproducer Chris Columbus (who once upon a time wrote the script for Gremlins) are not only insults to the intelligence but crimes against humanity. Much as the fleet, free-form style of Robin Williams was methodically destroyed in Mrs. Doubtfire, the subtle underplaying of Hugh Grant is replaced here by grotesque mugging and telegraphing designed to ensure that even brain-dead members of the audience aren’t remotely challenged. Grant unconvincingly plays an unmarried expectant father and child psychologist, and Julianne Moore is the expectant mother in a glib, reactionary yuppie comedy set in San Francisco, remade from a French comedy by Patrick Braoude that may or may not be just as nauseating. The costars are Tom Arnold (still playing the poor man’s Alan Alda), Joan Cusack, Jeff Goldblum, and Robin Williams (who clearly thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas as an inept Russian doctor). If you’re determined to make Columbus richer than he already is, why not save yourself further dehumanization and simply send him a check. (JR)… Read more »

The Indian In The Cupboard

A highly Americanized and extremely bland adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks’s English novel for children, about a nine-year-old boy (Hal Scardino) who discovers he can bring plastic toy figures to life inside a small cupboard. I haven’t read the novel, but I gather that one of the key differences in this version from writer Melissa Mathison and director Frank Oz is a sort of fractured multiculturalism whereby the hero gets to keep a real-life miniature Indian as a pet and a nonwhite kid (an Indian from India, played by Rishi Bhat) gets to keep a real-life white cowboy (David Keith) to even things up. The premise has its enjoyable aspects, but the casting and direction of actors here (not to mention the extremely narrow sense of character) seem so misconceived that the title Indian, though played by a member of the Cherokee nation named Litefoot, seems unconvincing throughout; the other little people aren’t much better, and Lindsay Crouse as the hero’s mother seems totally wasted. Hunt down Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, or even Ernest Schoedsack’s Dr. Cyclops or Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man for a much more enjoyable exploration of the same theme with more imaginative special effects.… Read more »

Anatomy of a Murder

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1995). — J.R.

This 1959 release is a prime contender for Otto Preminger’s greatest film — a superb courtroom drama packed with humor and character that shows every actor at his or her best. James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer asked to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on a charge of murdering a local businessman who allegedly raped his flirtatious wife (Lee Remick); Boston lawyer Joseph Welch (of the army-McCarthy hearings), in his only screen performance, plays the judge; and George C. Scott is a lawyer working for the prosecution. There are also wonderful performances by Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden, and even a cameo by Duke Ellington, who composed the memorable jazz score. As an entertaining look at legal process, this is spellbinding, infused by an ambiguity about human personality and motivation that is Preminger’s trademark, and the location shooting is superb. Adapted by Wendell Mayes from Robert Travers’s novel. 161 min.

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