Monthly Archives: October 1995

Total Eclipse

A lot of talented people are involved in this atrocity in one way or anothernot only French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose doomed relationship forms the core of the plot, but writer Christopher Hampton, director Agnieszka Holland, and lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio (Rimbaud), David Thewlis (Verlaine), and Romane Bohringerso it’s hard to know who to blame. I suspect that Hampton is the guiltiest party: piling on the lurid, middlebrow, middle-class shock values inherent in the material, and jettisoning practically all the poetry of both writers, he comes up with a script that’s well-nigh impossible to transcend. This isn’t exactly boring, but for anybody who cares about these actors and much of the earlier work of Holland, it’s a painful lesson in how far gifted people can go in deluding themselves. (JR)… Read more »

The Addiction

Here’s something to wrestle with: a PhD candidate in philosophy at NYU becomes a raving and ravenous Greenwich Village vampire and junkie — the two conditions are seen as interchangeable — while contemplating the victims of the Vietnam War and Nazi extermination camps and then promptly receives absolution. The dumbest, most pretentious script of 1995 is served up straight, with absolute sincerity and triple-distilled formal and thematic purity, by what may be the most beautiful and powerful direction in any American feature this year. The direction is by Abel Ferrara, working with his frequent screenwriter Nicholas St. John. Ken Kelsch’s nocturnal black-and-white cinematography is sometimes even breathtaking enough to justify the Dostoyevskian conceits of the dialogue (“The entire world’s a graveyard, and we’re the predators picking at the bones”), and the performances by Lili Taylor as the grad student and Christopher Walken (in only one scene) as a fellow vampire have comparable voltage. The mood of Catholic despair and excess is often close to that of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but it’s even more metaphysical and delirious. At the Berlin film festival, Ferrara maintained that St. John studied philosophy at Heidelberg, though some of the seminar dialogue here sounds like he must have made it through on college outlines.… Read more »

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1995). This date is a guess and an estimate; the Reader gives the date of this capsule as a decade earlier, a couple of years before I started writing for the paper. — J.R.

The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers midstream to burying them with voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; adding insult to injury are the merely adequate performances (by contemporary piano duo Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) of two unabridged Monk tunes. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts by friends and family of the mental illness that plagued his final years aren’t very illuminating — though here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there’s virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level.… Read more »

Coldblooded

A blank, baby-faced hunk (Jason Priestley) who works as a bookie is reluctantly promoted by a new gang boss (Robert Loggia) to become a hit man, and then has some trouble adjusting to the fact that he’s so good at it. I suppose the point of this black comedy is how willing all of us are nowadays to accommodate ourselves to murder. It’s the material for Swiftian satire, but writer-director M. Wallace Wolodarsky, a TV veteran, isn’t up to the job. In order for this to have a pointed moral position, one has to believe in the characters on some level, and only Peter Riegert, as the hero’s mentor, and Janeane Garofalo, in a small part as a hooker, come close to earning belief. Most of the performances and much of the mise en scene are stiff, and the laugh cues in the horribly banal and TV-like music score discouraged me even from smiling. One more indication of what Tarantino’s pervasive influence has wrought: this seems to tip its hat to him in a gag about blood on a new car’s leather upholstery. Maybe you’ll bust a gut, but I doubt it. With Kimberly Williams and Jay Kogen. Michael J. Fox, one of the producers, has a cameo.… Read more »

Persuasion

I’ve never read Jane Austen’s last novel (1818), and I’m not generally attracted to film adaptations of classic English literaturemost of which, even at their best, seem like Cliffs Notes versions. But Roger Michell’s first feature (1995), scripted by Nick Dear, is a lot fresher and more engaging than the usual department-store windows of Merchant-Ivory: it makes us care about the characters rather than the sets and costumes. Set in 1814, with the British navy just back from the Napoleonic wars, it concerns the gradual reunion of Captain Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) and Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), who’d been engaged seven years before. The secondary castincluding Simon Russell Beale, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Susan Fleetwood, and Fiona Shawis especially effective. (JR)… Read more »

The Chicago International Film Festival Week 2: Simon Says

As the Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second week, two more films with distributors have been added to the list. Persuasion–a thoughtful, intelligent adaptation of the Jane Austen novel that provides a welcome alternative to Merchant-Ivory–is replacing Deathmaker and is being handled by Sony Pictures Classics. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, filling the “surprise” film slot, is on all counts the dumbest Hollywood movie I saw in Cannes last May–an egregious Tarantino spin-off with everything the mainstream press is screaming for: a simple (even stupid) contrived plot, intimations of deranged and nonsensical violence, macho stances, movie stars, a fancy title, and the Miramax logo. It has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with someone pointing at Reservoir Dogs and saying, “Let’s have another one of those.” Under the circumstances, I guess the performances are OK.

Last week I suggested that the focus of this year’s retrospective, Lina Wertmuller–the recent recipient of the festival’s Golden Hugo for lifetime achievement–was a bizarre choice that might have been made interesting if the festival had issued a monograph explaining why her work was still worth defending or had some special relevance to the 90s. As a sort of substitute gesture the festival flew in John Simon, Wertmuller’s biggest defender, who solemnly informed at least one gathering that she had produced four masterpieces, more than any other artist in the history of Italian cinema–unlike Antonioni, responsible for only three, De Sica (only two), de Seta (one), Fellini (two or three–I forget which), and Visconti (one or two, ditto).… Read more »

A Time of Love

Less potent as filmmaking than The Peddler or Marriage of the Blessed, this intriguing 1990 feature by the eclectic, unpredictable Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, set in Turkey, was banned in Iran five years ago. It recounts the tale of an adulterous triangle (a taxi driver, a wife, and a man who shines shoes) in three separate versions, each of which offers a different perspective on the characters and issues; with Shiva Gered, Abdolrahman Yalmai, and Aken Tunc. Makhmalbaf, making his first U.S. appearance, will be present at both screenings to answer questions. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, October 21, 8:00, and Sunday, October 22, 4:00, 443-3737.… Read more »

Copycat

I can’t think of two hours more unpleasant than the ones I spent watching this, but if you like to watch women getting tortured by serial killers when they’re not tracking them down, this may be your cup of tea. Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver, a cop and a shrink, are the main trackers, but so little is done in Ann Biderman and David Madsen’s script to give them or their colleagues or even their prey interesting human dimensions that the overall ambience is chiefly pornographic. It seems that the serial killer likes to copy other serial killers in the same way that the filmmakers (including director Jon Amiel) like to copy other serial-killer movies, but little is made of this boring self-referentiality. I suppose you could call the film efficient, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. The cinematographer is Laszlo Kovacs; with Dermot Mulroney, William McNamara, Will Patton, and Harry Connick Jr. (JR)… Read more »

Mallrats

Kevin Smith’s 1995 follow-up to Clerks is a clear illustration of the principle that if you want to eliminate what’s distinctive and potentially dangerous in a low-budget independent, offer him a Hollywood contract. The Sundance festival, I know, is founded on a reverse principlethat Hollywood contracts are what everybody needsbut if this were the first Kevin Smith movie I’d ever seen I wouldn’t be especially eager to see another. As an Animal House romp about consumer slackers in a New Jersey mall, it’s harmless enoughjust don’t expect any sort of edge. At least with this outing, Smith left the working class to become just as boring as everybody else. With Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London, Jason Lee, and Claire Forlani. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Now And Then

A rather lame comedy-drama, about four women recalling their adventures when they were 12 and the best of friends in Indiana. Hampered by a sprawling script (by I. Marlene King) and uneven direction (by Lesli Linka Glatter), the actresses playing the 12-year-oldsChristina Ricci, Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffmann, and Ashleigh Aston Moorecan’t hold the same amount of interest as Melanie Griffith, Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, and Rita Wilson, who play the grown women and are around only for extended cameos. (JR)… Read more »

Losing Focus

Last year’s Chicago International Film Festival was the best in my eight years of living here. But now in its 31st year the festival seems to be sliding back toward some of its past problems. I don’t want to sound too alarmist about an event that’s showing several indispensable works, most of which would be impossible to see without the festival’s initiative. At least half are U.S. premieres, and we all should be properly grateful for this bounty.

But it’s also clear that the recent resignation of festival coprogrammer Marc Evans– over creative differences with director and founder Michael Kutza–has had consequences that are already visible in the program. Though Evans estimates that he was responsible for roughly a third of this year’s selections, his long-term efforts to cut down on the festival’s excesses and lack of selectivity have been undermined. The bane of last-minute schedule changes–always a problem with the Chicago festival, though one that Evans helped to minimize–is already back with a vengeance: as we go to press, a new festival schedule has just been printed to replace the original handout, and readers are advised to call and check whenever possible. Another problem, for which apparently neither Kutza nor Evans can be blamed, is the loss of Pipers Alley as a central festival screening facility.… Read more »

How to make an American Quilt

Not bad, especially as an excuse to bring together many of the best Hollywood actresses around–Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Samantha Mathis, Kate Nelligan, Winona Ryder, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, and Alfre Woodard–not to mention Maya Angelou in a cameo. Jane Anderson’s adaptation of Whitney Otto’s novel focuses on the summer a Berkeley graduate student (Ryder) spends with her grandmother and great aunt (Burstyn and Bancroft) while mulling over a marriage proposal from her boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Flashbacks spanning over a century rub shoulders with present-day scenes of a quilting bee. The capable director here is Jocelyn Moorhouse, an Australian best known for directing Proof and producing Muriel’s Wedding. Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, 900 N. Michigan, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City. … Read more »

The Scarlet Letter

Freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the credits say cautiously. I’ll say. Demi Moore, clothed and occasionally nude, lends her body to Hester Prynne (her mind seems elsewhere), Robert Duvall plays Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Simon Legree, and Gary Oldman plays Brad Pitt. Though the setting is Puritan New England, director Roland Joffe makes the New World landscapes and period details (both often handsome in their ‘Scope framings) resemble those in The Killing Fields and The Mission, as if to prove that an auteur, not an author, is in charge. (JR)… Read more »

Jade

Pretentious, boring, and consistently uninvolving, this effort by producer Robert Evans and director William Friedkin to make comebacks with an incoherent Joe Eszterhas script simply won’t wash. A San Francisco millionaire gets murdered to the strains of The Rite of Spring, the governor of California (Richard Crenna) is incriminated in a potential sex scandal, and thanks to the flaccid filmmaking and unappealing cast (David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri), it’s impossible to care. Friedkin includes a car chase to remind us of The French Connection and part of it is staged in Chinatown, presumably to remind us of Evans’s better days, but I kept looking at my watch; with Michael Biehn and Donna Murphy. (JR)… Read more »

Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy [SEVEN]

From the October 6, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Seven

*** (A must-see)

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker

With Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John McGinley, Julie Araskog, Mark Boone Junior, and Kevin Spacey.

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Since when have designer vomit, mannerist rot, and other chic signifiers of gloom, doom, and decline become such comforting mainstays of movies? I’m thinking not only about Hollywood but about Western cinema generally. What brings on all the driving, dirty rain in Satantango (Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, which showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival) as well as in Seven, a stylish and affecting (albeit gory) metaphysical serial-killer movie? The facile solution would be to trace the gloom back to Blade Runner, film noir, maybe even to Prague school surrealism, though this would omit the Calvinist/expressionist vision of urban filth and the post-Vietnam psychopathology of Taxi Driver. In point of fact, it’s much more important to figure out the reasons for the strange allure of this grim sensibility than to worry pedantically about where it came from.

I’d ascribe at least part of this taste to the current inability to believe in or try to effect political change — a form of paralysis that in America is related to an incapacity to accept that we’re no longer number one.… Read more »