Daily Archives: July 1, 1995

Kanto Vagabonds

A characteristically campy and stylish yakuza thriller in striking color (1963) by Japanese B-film mannerist Seijun Suzuki. It’s about a gambling-hall bouncer (Akira Kobayashi) who goes against the conventional code of gangster behavior by falling for a professional gambler. Based on a novel by Taiko Hirabayashi; with Chieko Matsubara. (JR)… Read more »

The Usual Suspects

Bryan Singer mechanically directs an intricate neo-noir script by Christopher McQuarrie, about five small-time New York thieves who find themselves caught up in a revenge scheme in Los Angeles with a $91 million payoff. If Reservoir Dogs is a lively rethinking of Kubrick’s The Killing, this is a less than lively retooling of Reservoir Dogs without the characters or punch, albeit with loads of macho posturing clearly intended to take their place. I didn’t believe this story for a minute, even in movie termsthough it’s less offensive than a piece of junk like Apt Pupil, Singer’s subsequent feature. With Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey, Suzy Amis, Benicio Del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dan Hedaya (1995). R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wild Reeds

Though I liked his criticism for Cahiers du Cinema in the 60s, I haven’t been a big fan of the five early Andre Techine films I’ve seen. But this wonderful and masterful feature (1994), his 12th, suggests that maybe he was just 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. 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 Revolutionthough 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 daughter of one of the teachers, who befriends the homosexual and falls for the older student in spite of their political differences. One comes to regard these characters and others as old friends, and Techine’s handling of pastoral settings is as exquisite as his feeling for period.… Read more »

The Cow

This 1993 Czech feature by Karel Kachyna (The Ear, The Last Butterfly), set in a remote mountain village around the turn of the century, doesn’t entirely work for me, but it’s still a film of some beauty and sensibility. A young farmer whose mother is a prostitute sells their cow to pay for morphine shortly before she dies, and the maid, who’s also the mistress of a butcher in the valley, gradually insinuates herself into the hero’s household. What one tends to carry away from this picture is a sense of hard labor in a beautiful setting; the characters are a bit crudely drawn, but the sense of the milieu lingers. With Radek Holub and Alena Mihulova. (JR)… Read more »

Bandit Queen

An epic 1994 action saga about Phoolan Devi, the lower-caste Indian woman who became a bandit celebrated as a heroine and goddess by her people. At its best, this recalls radical third-world westerns like Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das mortes as well as Kenji Mizoguchi’s films about men’s inhumanity to women. Yet despite its ambition, bracing anger, and visual panache, it remains many notches below such reference points because of its sensationalistic and fairly indiscriminate piling on of horrors and violence, which ultimately becomes pornographic. The issue isn’t what actually happened to Phoolan Devi, though she subsequently had legal disputes with the filmmakers. (According to this account, based on her diaries, she was forced into marriage at age 11, sold, repeatedly raped and beaten by police, ostracized, gang raped, publicly humiliated, and finally arrested and imprisoned.) The issue is the film’s tendency to desensitize us with a surfeit of details. Nevertheless, this is an eye-filling and often stirring movie. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, from a script by Mala Sen; with Seema Biswas. In Hindi with subtitles. 121 min. (JR)… Read 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 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. (JR)… Read more »

Double Happiness

A 22-year-old aspiring Chinese actress (Sandra Oh) living in a North American city with her parents and younger sister has to choose between her ambitions and traditional family loyalties. I wouldn’t call this 1994 Canadian comedy an unqualified success (some of the acting is uneven, for instance), but I learned a whole lot more about Chinese family traditions from this picture than from the middle-class crowd-pleasing The Wedding Banquet, and director Mina Shum kept me pretty amused and entertained besides. With Stephen Chang, Frances You, and Allanah Ong. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tokyo Drifter

A 1966 yakuza gangster thriller with a pop-art look by the formidable B-movie director Seijun Suzuki, who’s generally much stronger in visual style than narrative coherence. With Tetsuya Watari and Chicko Matsubara. (JR)… Read more »

A Pure Formality

After the success of Rain Man Barry Levinson was allowed to indulge himself with Toys, and after Cinema Paradiso Giuseppe Tornatore was similarly allowed to foist this work of staggering pretentiousness on the public (1994). This French-Italian production with French dialogue, written with Pascale Quignard, starts off promisingly enough as a police thriller with metaphysical and symbolic overtones, but becomes steadily more abstract and preposterous as it gets closer to the denouement. A man without identity papers (Gerard Depardieu) running through the woods in a raging storm in an unnamed country is arrested and taken to a dilapidated police station to be interrogated. He claims to be a famous writer named Onoff, but the facts he offers the inspector (Roman Polanski) are confused and contradictory, and as the night wears on things just get murkier and murkier. The performances by the two leads and by Sergio Rubini are more than serviceable, but it makes little difference given that the material is so gratingly awful. Beware. (JR)… Read more »

First Knight

Oh dear, one of my colleagues remarked, and I know just how he felt. In this thoroughly unnecessary and profoundly unconvincing contribution to the King Arthur legend, written by William Nicholson and directed by Jerry Zucker (Ghost), Richard Gere is a semibearable Lancelot only when the character’s a footloose freelancer; the moment he has to pledge fealty to Camelot and the honor of Guinevere (Julia Ormond), the actor’s unquenchable narcissism and glibness make him seem the worst kind of hypocrite, which clearly wasn’t the script’s intention. Sean Connery fares better as King Arthur, but then he’s always been swell at playing amiable statues; by the time this movie’s over you may feel hard as rock yourself, and not so amiable about it. With Ben Cross, Liam Cunningham, and Christopher Villiers. (JR)… Read more »

Species

Extraterrestrials contrive to persuade a beady-eyed American scientist (Ben Kingsley) to combine their own and human DNA to create a new being. This yields a dangerous female who grows from girl to woman in a matter of hours and then proceeds to Los Angeles, looking for a male to mate with. The funny thing about this scary SF thriller directed by Roger Donaldson from a screenplay by coproducer Dennis Feldman is that in spite of all its unexplained and semiridiculous plot premises it works surprisingly well as a genre exercise, perhaps because, like Alien, it knows how to exploit misogynist biological and sexual anxieties for all they’re worth. (It’s small wonder that the climactic chase takes place inside a sewer.) The cast is a lot of fun to watch, too; Kingsley seems almost as creepy as the lady monster (played by Michelle Williams as a girl and by Natasha Henstridge as a vamp), and the members of his crack monster-elimination team are played by Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, and Marg Helgenberger. (JR)… Read more »

Hyenas

Following his extraordinary debut Touki Bouki (1973)the first experimental feature in African cinemaSenegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety survived mainly as a stage and film actor, and naturally expectations for his second feature ran high. When Hyenas was released in 1992 I considered it a safer film, but on further reflection I find it more considered and mature than its predecessor, with ironies that may turn out to be even deadlier. It… Read more »

Reversal Of Fortune

If there’s something a bit dilettantish about the career of former ace producer Barbet Schroeder (The Marquise of O, Celine and Julie Go Boating, The American Friend) as a director (More, Maitresse, Barfly), it can’t be denied that he’s been steadily picking up skill and craft. This 1990 drama about the celebrated case of Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons)the European aristocrat in Newport who may or may not have been responsible for his wife Sunny (Glenn Close) winding up in a permanent comais an extremely confident piece of filmmaking, with an able script by Nicholas Kazan, based on Alan Dershowitz’s nonfiction book about the case, and a terrific performance by Irons. Sunny’s periodically narrating the plot from her coma adds to the unresolved ambiguity, and the juxtaposition of liberal Jewish attorney Dershowitz (well played by Ron Silver) and von Bulow working together on the latter’s defense makes for some engagingly offbeat drama, with some interesting insights into the legal process. What it all adds up to is something the film never quite seems prepared to address, but this is a fascinating look at all the secondary questions. (JR)… Read more »

Red Dust

Set in China during the Japanese occupation, this 1990 Hong Kong soap about a female novelist’s romance with a collaborator has been likened to Doctor Zhivago, but for me that isn’t necessarily a recommendation; anyway, on the level of plot, the French episode in Hiroshima, mon amour may be a more salient reference point. What keeps this watchable despite the telegraphic, bombastic storytelling is the castespecially the expressive Maggie Cheung as the heroine’s best friendand the artful mise en scene of the underrated Yim Ho (The Day the Sun Turned Cold), who also plays a cameo as Cheung’s political boyfriend. In Cantonese with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »