Monthly Archives: February 1996

Salt of the Earth

A rarely screened classic of 1954, the only major American independent feature made by communists. A fiction film about the strike by Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico against their Anglo management, informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of this period, it was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others. As Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe (it was selected, for instance, as the best film shown in France in 1955), but it has never received the stateside recognition it deserves. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, February 24, 6:00, 443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Mindless Kicks [RUMBLE IN THE BRONX & BROKEN ARROW]

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.

Rumble in the Bronx

Directed by Stanley Tong

Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma

With Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Francoise Yip, and Bill Tung.

Broken Arrow

Directed by John Woo

Written by Graham Yost

With John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Bob Gunton, and Frank Whaley.

Many people who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever probably remember the poster of a bare-chested Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in the bedroom of Tony (John Travolta), the king of Brooklyn disco. But how many recall the poster of a bare-chested Bruce Lee as well? In the nearly two decades since Saturday Night Fever was released, the dream of wedding Hong Kong action pyrotechnics with Hollywood production values to conquer the American mainstream has surfaced periodically, but until recently the results have seemed halfhearted at best.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier Jackie Chan vehicles with American settings — films like The Big Brawl (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981) — but it’s clear that none of these succeeded in turning Chan into an American household word. At most he’s become an alternative action hero for some passionate aficionados — especially in Chicago, where Barbara Scharres’s efforts at the Film Center to honor his work, climaxing in an in-person appearance a few years back, have helped to foster a growing cult.… Read more »

Bottle Rocket

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.

br2

A fresh, character-driven, often funny, and unfashionably upbeat (as well as offbeat) first feature by Wes Anderson, this film — written by one of the lead actors (Owen C. Wilson) in collaboration with Anderson — focuses on three young and immature male friends and aspiring thieves in Texas. Two of Wilson’s brothers, Luke and Andrew, also act in the film, the former playing another of the leads; the third friend is played by Robert Musgrave, and Like Water for Chocolate‘s Lumi Cavazos and Hollywood veteran James Caan also play significant roles. The film has all the benefits that come from a relaxed cast largely consisting of friends, and the presence of such producers/godparents as Polly Platt, James L. Brooks, and L.M. Kit Carson probably helps as well. This isn’t a movie that beats you over the head, which in industry terms may make it a hard sell, but I found its Kerouac-like goofiness both charming and sustaining. Pipers Alley, Evanston. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Rumble In The Bronx

A mainly routine Hong Kong action film from fleet and floppy-haired action hero Jackie Chanthe number-one box-office hit in mainland China in 1995, released here the following year. It’s light on plot and character, but the stunts are well staged: Chan plays a Hong Kong cop vacationing in New York who tangles with street gangs. This was mainly shot in Vancouver and looks it. Directed by Stanley Tong from a script by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

Before And After

The brutally mauled corpse of a teenage girl is found in a small Massachusetts town, and all the evidence seems to point to her boyfriend (Edward Furlong), the son of a local pediatrician (Meryl Streep) and sculptor (Liam Neeson) who has mysteriously disappeared. The father decides to suppress evidence before he even knows what happened. Adapted by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) from Rosellen Brown’s best-selling novel, and very well directed by Barbet Schroeder, this movie becomes an absorbing meditation on the separate claims made by family loyalty and social responsibility that both divide and unite the family (which also has a young daughter, played by Julia Weldon, who serves as narrator). Curiously, we are never told why the girl’s corpse is so badly disfigured, though everything else gets explained. Over the course of exploring this troubling all-American subject, the filmmakers do a fine job of fleshing out the major characters (I especially liked Alfred Molina as the son’s defense lawyer), and the New England locations are beautifully integrated. With Daniel Von Bargen, John Heard, Ann Magnuson, and Kaiulani Lee. (JR)… Read more »

Unforgettable

After making a name for himself as a director of postnoirs (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), John Dahl switches genres to SF thriller, and thanks in part to a sprawling and undisciplined, if not preposterous, script (by Bill Geddie, the executive producer of several Barbara Walters specials), complete with a mad forensic pathologist (Ray Liotta), he hits the skids. Helped by a resourceful neurobiologist (Linda Fiorentino), Liotta discovers that memories are stored in cerebral spinal fluid. He then injects himself with his dead wife’s in order to solve the mystery of who killed her. Maybe this would have worked as a modest trashy thriller compressed to 75 minutes, but Dahl lets it run for almost two hours, punctuated with more flashy flashbacks and sweaty close-ups of Liotta (the poor man’s Jeffrey Hunter) than any one person can take, and it becomes increasingly hard to sustain an interest in the plot, much less in whodunit. One nice dividend, though, is Fiorentino, who seems to have consciously striven to play the reverse of her character in The Last Seductionshe’s klutzy, nurturing, and ethicaland does a charming turn with it. With Peter Coyote, Christopher McDonald, Kim Cattrall, Kim Coates, and David Paymer. (JR)… Read more »

Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business

Highly personal and informative, Helena Solberg’s feature-length 1994 documentary about Brazilian musical star Carmen Miranda and her complex identities–a Broadway and Hollywood icon who caricatured Brazilian traits, a woman who became a campy “bombshell”–is an eye-opener. A Brazilian-American herself, Solberg may have more invested in this subject than she can handle, but most of what she has to say and show is so interesting and intelligent you’re not likely to object. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, February 16, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, February 17 and 18, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, February 19 through 22, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

A Tale of Love

Like her previous works, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s fifth film, her first in 35-millimeter and her first narrative feature, is both beautiful and difficult (1995). The difficulties begin with the title: this is not a tale, and it doesn’t really concern love–though one of its points of departure is “The Tale of Kieu,” the 19th-century Vietnamese national poem of love. Set in San Francisco, the story focuses on a Vietnamese writer named Kieu who works for a women’s magazine and as a photographer’s model to help support her family back in Vietnam. The beauties include the aggressive music score and the oddly contrapuntal mise en scene, which often seems to have a very different agenda from that of the actors. At times a frankly erotic film that interrogates its own eroticism, it challenges the audience as well with its acting styles and disorienting means of storytelling. Clearly not for everyone, but nothing else around is even remotely like it. Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Friday and Saturday, February 16 and 17, 8:00, 384-5533.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love

These two remarkable Polish features by Krzysztof Kieslowski, made respectively in 1987 and 1988 (and being shown for separate admissions), are both expanded versions of segments in his Decalogue, one of the key works in contemporary cinema, with each segment illustrating one of the Ten Commandments–though regrettably unseen and unavailable in this country apart from a few festival showings. A Short Film About Killing is a feature that might be called terminally Polish in its bleak handling of a brutal killing and the public execution of the murderer. It won the jury prize at Cannes and is probably the most powerful movie about the death penalty ever made. A Short Film About Love, located more centrally in the housing complex that recurs throughout Decalogue, is about the voyeuristic relationship between a troubled 19-year-old postal worker and a woman he spies on every night through his telescope–a relationship that becomes more complex and takes on certain overtones recalling Rear Window once the woman becomes aware of his gaze and decides to seduce him. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, A Short Film About Killing: Friday, February 9, 7:00; Saturday and Sunday, February 10 and 11, 3:00 and 7:00; and Monday through Thursday, February 12 through 15, 7:00; A Short Film About Love: Friday, February 9, 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, February 10 and 11, 5:00 and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, February 12 through 15, 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

The Devil, Probably

From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 1996). — J.R.

The-Devil-Probably

Robert Bresson’s penultimate feature (1977) — his only original script apart from his early short Les affaires publiques and his masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar — is a ringing indictment of the modern world, centered on the suicide of a disaffected 20-year-old Parisian. There’s something mannered and at times even freakish about Bresson’s handling of well-clothed adolescents and his multifaceted editorializing — which improbably recalls Samuel Fuller in its anger and dynamic energy — but the power and conviction of this bitter, reflective parable are remarkable. Not a masterwork perhaps, but certainly the work of a master, and, judging from the work of many of his young French disciples (including Leos Carax), one of his most influential features. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, February 2, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, February 3 and 4, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, February 5 through 8, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.  — Jonathan Rosenbaum

TheDevilProbably

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

The Fountain of Youth and Return to Glennascaul

To promote the first volume of his two-part biography of Orson Welles–a fascinating if contestable book–actor-director Simon Callow is presenting a Welles tribute consisting of two half-hour shorts. Hilton Edwards’s 1951 Irish ghost story Return to Glennascaul (narrated by Welles), who also appears briefly and probably directed the short bit that allegedly shows him filming Othello, won an Oscar when it came out. But the real gem in this program is The Fountain of Youth, Welles’s first and best TV pilot–shot for Desilu in 1956 and first aired two years later. Based on John Collier’s story “Youth From Vienna,” this dark period comedy about youth potions and aging (narrated by Welles, who also appears centrally as a kind of lecturer) is in some ways as innovative in relation to TV as Citizen Kane was in relation to movies; the pilot never sold but the nastiness of the humor still carries a rude bite. The Fountain of Youth tweaks Welles’s own narcissism as well as that of his characters–played by Joi Lansing, Dan Tobin, and Rick Jason–while making novel use of still photographs and quick lighting changes to mark shifts in space and time: it presents the medium of TV itself as a kind of mirror to get lost in.… Read more »

Hu Du Men

The title of this entertaining Hong Kong movie (1996), also known as Stage Door, is a Cantonese opera term for the imaginary line separating the stage from backstage, and it becomes emblematic of the various crossovers in the story itself. Adapted by Raymond To Kwow-wai from his own play, it concerns the producer and star of a Cantonese opera company (Josephine Siao) who’s about to abandon her career to emigrate to Australia with her husband and adopted daughter. (The anticipation of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland is a major theme here, as it is in many recent Hong Kong films.) The adopted daughter is showing lesbian tendencies and the heroine, a specialist in male roles, is experiencing some gender confusion of her own. Shu Kei, the directora central figure in the Hong Kong film scene who is known as its most outspoken film critic, as a prolific screenwriter who’s worked for the likes of Ann Hui, Yim Ho, and John Woo, and as a programmer and novelistnavigates genre and gender alike with wit and aplomb. (JR)… Read more »

Lost Highway

It’s questionable how much Barry Gifford has benefited the work of David Lyncheither in furnishing the source material for Wild at Heart or in collaborating on this even more noir-heavy scriptbut this 1996 feature was Lynch’s most audacious break from conventional narrative since Eraserhead. The enigmatic plot, shaped like a M… Read more »

Up Close & Personal

Though Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are creditable print journalists, they become shameless hacks whenever they write screenplays, and this deeply offensive Disney picture about TV journalism in Miamitraversing various areas already treated in both Broadcast News and To Die For, and suggested by Alanna Nash’s book Golden Girlis no exception. The usually wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer plays a former waitress and casino worker from Reno determined to become a big-time anchorperson, and Robert Redford plays her patriarchal boss, guru, and eventual lover. Maybe if this sentimental, dim-witted, sexist claptrap about showbiz had been written 30 years ago it might have been a little less offensive, but somehow I doubt it. Prepare to shed a tear or two if you fall for it; I kept looking at my watch. Directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes); with Stockard Channing, Joe Mantegna, Kate Nelligan, Glenn Plummer, and James Rebhorn. (JR)… Read more »

For God And Country

This autobiographical Austrian feature (1994) by Wolfgang Murnberger is likable, even if it’s not especially compelling as plot. It focuses on the erotic fantasies, medieval and otherwise, of a bored and alienated 18-year-old private, the son of a movie-theater manager, stationed on the border between Austria and Hungary in 1980. (His dreams are in black and white, but the remainder of the film is in color.) Well acted and nicely filmed. (JR)… Read more »