Monthly Archives: August 1995

Hackers

Without being any sort of miracle, this is an engaging and lively exploitation fantasy-thriller about computer hackers, anarchistic in spirit, that succeeds at just about everything The Net failed toespecially in representing computer operations with some visual flair. The isolated teenage hero (Jonny Lee Miller), having caused 1,507 Wall Street computers to crash some years before, moves to New York with his mother and eventually joins forces with other disenfranchised hackers at school (Hackers of the world, unite!) against a hacker working for a corporation who’s bent on snuffing them out. The director and executive producer here is Iain Softley, best known for Backbeat, doing his utmost with an only so-so script by Rafael Moreu; the standout in a cast composed mainly of youthful unknowns (apart from Lorraine Bracco and Penn Jillette) is Angelina Jolie as the spiky hacker heroine. With Fisher Stevens, Jesse Bradford, Laurence Mason, and Renoly Santiago. (JR)… Read more »

Aparajito

The second installment of Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, fully comprehensible on its own terms, suffers at times from its episodically constructed plot, which follows Apu from the age of ten in the holy city of Banaras (in 1920) to his early adulthood in Calcutta. It also bears the traces of technical problems, which led to a virtually one-to-one shooting ratio for many scenes. But this also happens to be my own favorite film in the trilogy, as well as the reported favorite of Ray’s fellow Bengali directors Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Its treatment of death — specifically the death of Apu’s father toward the beginning of the film and of his mother near the end — is among the most beautiful, mystical, and precise handlings of that subject in all of cinema, worthy of Mizoguchi; in a way the film is little more than a careful contextualizing of these two astonishing sequences. An adaptation of roughly the last fifth of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novel Pather Panchali and the first third of his subsequent novel Aparajita, this benefits as much as the rest of the trilogy from the ravishing “commentary” of Ravi Shankar’s music. It’s a masterpiece for which terms like “simplicity” and “profundity” seem inadequate.… Read more »

A View From The Past [VALLEY OF ABRAHAM]

From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.

Valley of Abraham

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira

With Leonor Silveira, Cecile Sanz de Alba, Luis Miguel Cintra, Rui de Carvalho, Luis Lima Barreto, Diogo Doria, Jose Pinto, and Isabel Ruth.

I think the most important intellectual discovery I’ve made in the past year came from the early pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. In a way, it’s an observation so obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: “Unlike the ‘long 19th century,’ which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress…there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population….Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.”

So thoroughly had I been brainwashed by the myth of perpetual progress that it didn’t even occur to me that the history of the 20th century might be one of regression.… Read more »

The Battle Of Culloden

Peter Watkins documents a decisive step in England’s conquest of the Scots with this impressive early feature (1964). Like many of his other films, including The Commune, it’s a period film done in the style of a TV news broadcast. (JR)… Read more »

Beyond Rangoon

This 1995 film works so well as storytelling and action adventure that you may want to overlook the dubious if well-intentioned premise: the slaughter of the Burmese populace becomes significant only to the degree that an American tourist (Patricia Arquette), seeking to overcome a tragedy in her own life, becomes personally involved with it. Ace director John Boorman took over this project from other hands, and he shows his customary flair with ‘Scope compositions, gorgeous sunsets, and suspenseful, exotic spectacle. What left me a little uneasy is epitomized by Hans Zimmer’s hack score, which aims at sounding vaguely Southeast Asian (wooden-sounding flutes and the like) rather than specifically Burmese to get us all in the right paternalistic frame of mind. But if you don’t mind such casual insults, you’re likely to be glued to your seat. Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein wrote the script; with Frances McDormand, Spalding Gray, and U Aung Ko. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Magic In The Water

A singularly unconvincing parable, ultimately hamstrung by awkward, choppy storytelling. Mark Harmon plays a divorced radio psychiatrist in Seattle who reluctantly takes his son and daughter on a holiday to a lakeside community in British Columbia where, according to Indian legends, a sea monster is lurking; by the time you discover whether it is or not it’s pretty hard to care as much as the characters, who undergo all sorts of improbable changes by listening to their inner selves. Directed by Rick Stevenson, from a script he wrote with Icel Dobell Massey and Ninian Dunnett; with Joshua Jackson, Harley Jane Kozak, and Sarah Wayne. (JR)… Read more »

Desperado

To no one’s surprise but the producer’s, Robert Rodriguez’s bigger-budget spin-off/remake of (and occasional sequel to) his impressive action quickie El mariachi doesn’t stand comparison with its predecessor. On the other hand, Rodriguez is clearly a talent to watch, and there’s plenty to be entertained or impressed by herefancy, violent action sequences (which gradually develop from barroom shoot-outs to outright war battles); a feisty interaction between hero (Antonio Banderas) and heroine (Salma Hayek) that suggests the influence of Howard Hawks; some enjoyable actorly bits by Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino (who’s at least around long enough to tell a funny joke), and Steve Buscemi; an enjoyable villain (Joaquim de Almeida, not a gringo here as he was in El mariachi); a nice Mexican score by Los Lobos; and even a halfway tolerable twist in the plot. What’s mainly missing is the sort of conviction and passion that gave El mariachi its charge; one feels at almost every moment that Rodriguez is fulfilling a contract rather than saying something he has to say. There’s a lot of panache here, but not much inspiration. (JR)… Read more »

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Apart from Crumb, this film by Steven M. Martin may be the best American documentary feature of 1994. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating, taking as its subject the electronic musical instrument known as the theremin; Leon Theremin, the Russian visionary who created it; and all the remarkable things that have happened to inventor and invention over the past seven decades. In a way, the film also describes the complex history of a concept in this country: how a particular sound gave birth to electronic music (Robert Moog is one of the many people interviewed here, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and various classical musicians) and wound up being used in Hollywood, mainly in SF films. Then there’s the hair-raising story of Theremin being kidnapped by Soviet agents in 1938, his romance with a Russian violin prodigy, and much, much more. I shouldn’t leave out the fascination of watching a theremin being played; just as it’s difficult to play a vibraphone without dancing, it’s hard to play a theremin without “conducting.” Martin will attend the screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 19, 8:00, 443-3737. … Read more »

The Day the Sun Turned Cold

A remarkably effective and provocative contemporary Chinese melodrama (1994), based on a recent murder case in mainland China (where much of the movie was filmed), and written and directed by the talented Cantonese filmmaker Yim Ho (Homecoming, King of Chess). Told mainly in flashbacks, the story describes what happens when a worker in his 20s turns up at a police station to report that his mother murdered his father ten years earlier. No psychological ramification of the case is overlooked, and Yim’s mise en scene keeps the action suspenseful and emotionally potent. This was last year’s Hong Kong entry for the Academy Award for best foreign film, and it’s certainly better than any recent American psychological thriller that comes to mind (though the neglected Dolores Claiborne might give it a run for its money). With Siqin Gowa, Tuo Zhong Hua, and Wai Zhi. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 19, 4:00, 443-3737. … Read more »

Living In Oblivion

A very funny 1994 comedy by New York writer-director Tom DiCillo, cinematographer of Stranger Than Paradise, about the nightmares of shooting an American independent feature. The story comes in three acts, and even though the first is funnier than the second and the second funnier than the third, the whole thing is still pretty entertaining. The comedy here recalls at times Truffaut’s Day for Night, though the characters are much thinner. With Steve Buscemi, James LeGros, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, and Danielle von Zernick. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Brothers Mcmullen

This extremely banal low-budget American independent effort by writer-director-actor Edward Burns (1995, 97 min.), about Irish-Catholic brothers and their women in Long Island, provoked a certain amount of buzz and won a best picture prize at the Sundance film festival, but if anything about the movie merits such interest it eludes me. Though the acting seems competent enough, I was bored out of my skull throughoutby the conventional characters and by their shopworn soul-searching, which reminded me of Woody Allen devoid of wit. If you want to waste a couple of hours, you can surely do much better. With Shari Albert, Maxine Bahns, Catharine Bolz, Connie Britton, Peter Johansen, Jennifer Jostyn, Mike McGlone, Elizabeth P. McKay, and Jack Mulcahy. (JR)… Read more »

Pather Panchali

In 1955, the year Satyajit Ray’s beautiful first feature, Pather Panchali, won the grand prix at Cannes, no less a humanist than Francois Truffaut walked out of a screening declaring, “I don’t want to see a film about Indian peasants.” Time and critical opinion have been much kinder to this family melodrama–derived, like its successors in the Apu trilogy, Aparajito and The World of Apu, from a 30s novel by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee–than to Truffaut’s remark. Yet there’s no question that Ray’s contemplative treatment of a poor Brahmin family in a Bengali village, made on a small budget and accompanied by the mesmerizing music of Ravi Shankar, is a triumph of mood and character rather than an exercise in brisk Western storytelling. This new print launches an exciting retrospective of Ray’s important, long-unavailable work, perhaps the closest thing to a genuinely “classical” and novelistic oeuvre in the Indian cinema. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 11 through 17. … Read more »

Life and Death in China [THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD]

From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 1995). — J.R.

The Day the Sun Turned Cold

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Yim Ho

With Siqin Gowa, Tuo Zhong Hua, Ma Jing Wu, Wai Zhi, Shu Zhong, and Li Hu.

A striking moment in Mina Shum’s Double Happiness – a recent Canadian feature about an aspiring young actress in a North American city — reveals something about our attitudes toward Chinese culture. The Chinese-American heroine is auditioning for a small part as a waitress in a TV movie. After she runs through her lines, her prospective employers ask how good she is with accents. Pretty good, she replies; at this point we’ve already heard her southern drawl, and now she asks them in a French accent what kind of accent they want — French, perhaps, or something else? There’s a long, embarrassed silence, until she figures out that they want her to speak with a Chinese accent. She promptly does so, and with the same exaggeration she’d given her Southern Belle and Basic Frog. She immediately gets the part.

When Chinese movies audition for release in the North American market, I’m afraid the same sort of unspoken rules apply.… Read more »

Repulsion

Roman Polanski’s first film in English (1965) is still his scariest and most disturbingnot only for its evocations of sexual panic, but also because his masterful employment of sound puts the audience’s imagination to work in numerous ways. Catherine Deneuve gives an impressive performance as a quiet and quietly mad beautician living with her older sister in London and terrified of men. When the sister and her boyfriend take off on a holiday, her fears and her isolation in the apartment are allowed to fester along with the uncooked food, with increasingly violent and macabre results. As narrative this works only part of the time, and as case study it may occasionally seem too pat, but as subjective nightmare it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Godard Talking to Himself

From the August 4, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. My thanks to Chris Petit for recently (Memorial Day, 2010) reminding me that I wrote this. I’ve heard, incidentally, that Godard prefers the original title of JLG/JLG to its American release title, the one given here. — J.R.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Eddie Constantine, Hanns Zischler, Claudia Michelsen, Andre Labarthe, and Nathalie Kadem.

JLG by JLG

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Godard, Andre Labarthe, and Bernard Eisenschitz.

Like most of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) and JLG by JLG (subtitled December Self-Portrait, 1994) are annexes to his Histoire(s) du cinéma, a work on video in multiple parts scheduled to premiere in its finished form at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland in early August. (Four portions of this video have already shown at the Film Center.) Like the various parts of Histoire(s) du cinéma, these films (each about an hour long and being shown together at Facets Multimedia) are above all collections of carefully arranged quotations — interwoven anthologies of extracts from prose, poetry, philosophy, films, musical works, paintings.… Read more »