Monthly Archives: May 1996

The Traveller

This first feature by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami launches an indispensable, if less than complete, retrospective for one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. Made in 1974, the film tells the story of a village boy who’s determined to attend a soccer match in Tehran, a venture that involves swiping or scamming money from various sources and in effect running away from home. The comparison that many have made between this touchingly nonjudgmental and often comic short feature and The 400 Blows isn’t far off, and Kiarostami’s warm, poetic feeling for children and his flair for both storytelling and documentarylike detail are already fully in place. On the same program are two of Kiarostami’s conceptual short films (many of which recall Jane Campion’s experimental Passionless Moments in both essayistic content and formal brio), made respectively in 1975 and 1981. I’ve seen So I Can (an obtuse inversion of the original title that translates simply “so can I”), which deftly mixes animation and live action, and look forward to seeing Regularly or Irregularly, which reportedly treats schoolroom behavior in a highly formal manner. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 1, 6:00, and Sunday, June 2, 2:00, 443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

The Arrival

When a radio astronomer (Charlie Sheen) receives a transmission from space and nobody at NASA wants to hear about it, he and a global-warming researcher (Lindsay Crouse) converge in central Mexico, where extraterrestrials disguised as humans are waiting to adapt our planet for their own purposes. Writer-director David Twohy, best known for his work as a writer on The Fugitive, Alien , and Waterworld, has a creepy notion or two up his sleeve and loads of free-floating paranoia to exploit, but either no idea of how to cut a film or no power to resist the recutting of others. Either way, this is a collection of bits and pieces that never manages to gather any momentum. Another problem is Sheen, who looks so bug-eyed at times that he seems to be trying to gross out the aliens. With Ron Silver (creepier than usual), Teri Polo, Richard Schiff, and Tony T. Johnson. (JR)… Read more »

The Gate of Heavenly Peace

An immensely valuable three-hour 1995 documentary by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon about the events in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989–what led up to them, what they were, and what has ensued since. One of the most impressive things about this film is its view from the inside (Hinton has lived in China for most of her life); another is its refusal to adopt a single partisan position or to assume, as the filmmakers themselves put it, that there’s only one correct path for China. Drawing on archival materials, the filmmakers have also benefited from expert advisers–Orville Schell, for instance, served as a consultant. If you want to learn more about this pivotal event, this is a film likely to revise the very terms of your understanding it. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, May 25, 2:30; Sunday, May 26, 3:00 and 6:30; and Tuesday and Thursday, May 28 and 30, 6:00; 443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France.… Read more »

I Shot Andy Warhol

This American independent feature by Mary Harron, written with Dan Minahan, is so good at re-creating the appearances of Warhol and his 60s milieu that I was almost completely won over. That is, until a closing title called Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto a feminist classic. After going out of its way to persuade the audience that Solanas was a raving lunatic, the movie does an about-face and calls her a visionary. But having things both ways characterizes just about every facet and offshoot of the Warhol industry, so I guess this movie shouldn’t be castigated for the same principled (and often instructive) confusion. Lili Taylor turns in a good performance as Solanas, and Jared Harris as Warhol, Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling, and Michael Imperioli as Ondine are almost equally impressive. If you want to know what the Warhol scene was all about, this is even better than the documentaries. With Martha Plimpton, Danny Morgenstern, and Lothaire Bluteau (as the nefarious Maurice Girodias). Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Two Friends

Technically, this low-budget 16-millimeter television film (1986) qualifies as Jane Campion’s first feature. The script is by Australian novelist Helen Garner, one of whose books was the source for Monkey Grip, a film in the Australian retrospective at the Film Center. (She also worked with Gillian Armstrong on The Last Days of Chez Nous.) The mise en scene, though clearly Campion-esque in certain stretches of oddball inventiveness, is still some distance from the splendors of Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, and The Piano. Like Kaufman and Hart’s play Merrily We Roll Along and Pinter’s Betrayal, the story proceeds in reverse chronology, starting with the death of a teenage dropout (Kris Bidenko) from a drug overdose and then working through the previous year, with particular emphasis on her friendship with a classmate (Emma Coles). (Part of the point is how similar these friends were when they started school together.) Campion’s work with actors yields plenty of rewards here, and the structure is certainly interesting, though one also feels at times that Campion and Garner have bitten off a little more than they can chew. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 10 through 16. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

A Place in the Pantheon: Films by Bela Tarr

From the Chicago Reader (May 9, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Bela Tarr

The movies of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr — half a dozen features in all — are divided into two parts. His first three films are socialist realist cries of rage, much of their style influenced by John Cassavetes. The 1979 Family Nest is about a young couple forced to live in a one-room apartment with the husband’s parents; the 1981 The Outsider focuses on a shiftless, heavy-drinking violinist who fathers a child with one woman and marries another while working sporadically in a hospital and at a factory, then is called up for military service; and the 1982 The Prefab People is about an unhappy family of four: a frustrated wife, two kids, and a disaffected husband and father (another heavy drinker) who plans to take a two-year job in Romania, much to his wife’s distress.

The second half of Tarr’s oeuvre, its style influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky, moves beyond socialism and realism to look with mordant wit at something more universal: a form of moral decay, perhaps, but with metaphysical implications. Whereas the first half of Tarr’s output is mainly shot in raw close-ups, the second half is largely shot in detached medium and long shots.… Read more »

Heaven’s Prisoners

Writers Harley Peyton and Scott Frank adapt James Lee Burke’s novel, about a former New Orleans cop and reformed alcoholic (Alec Baldwin) now running a boat and bait shop in the bayous who returns to snooping after rescuing a Salvadoran girl from a plane crash and finding himself enmeshed in a crime conspiracy as a consequence. Though the plot is mainly routine, the colorful location shooting and some of the acting (most notably Eric Roberts) make this better than average (if a bit long), and there’s one chase sequence that’s especially good. Phil Joanou directed; with Teri Hatcher, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kelly Lynch, and Vondie Curtis Hall. (JR)… Read more »

Boys

Though it’s far from an unqualified success, this second feature by writer-director Stacy Cochran is generally an improvement over her first, My New Gun. Lukas Haas plays a rebellious loner in his senior year at a stuffy boarding school who comes to the aid of a woman (Winona Ryder) evading the police. Certain parts of the storyadapted from the James Salter short story Twenty Minutesare more believable than others, but the actors do a nice job of investing it all with a certain conviction, and there’s a fairy-tale tinge to some of the action that gives it a certain charm. With John C. Reilly, James LeGros, Skeet Ulrich, and Charlie Hofheimer. (JR)… Read more »

Twister

Another roller-coaster ride, enjoyable but dopey, from Jan De Bont (Speed), this one is blown up to Cecil B. De Mille proportions, with loads of special effects. Nearly all the major characters are tornado chasers in Oklahomarival teams of scientists eager to test their equipment to learn more about how tornadoes work. Much of the action is fill-in-the-blanks, and there’s something that passes lamely for a romantic triangle involving one of the scientists (Bill Paxton), his coworker and ex-wife (Helen Hunt), and his fiancee (Jami Gertz). But the engineering of the special effects is fairly impressive, and the sight of so many objects and creatures being buffeted about carries a certain apocalyptic splendor. The script was written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin. With Cary Elwes and Lois Smith. PG-13, 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Horseman On The Roof

A revolutionary Italian (Olivier Martinez) in flight from Austrian soldiers in 1832 France is the focus of this colorful and lively 1995 French feature. The narrative involves a cholera epidemic raging through Provence, so expect to see a lot of corpses and crows along with the romance and adventure. With Juliette Binoche, Pierre Arditi, Francois Cluzet, and Jean Yanne; writer-director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac) adapted Jean Giono’s novel Le Hussard sur la Toit. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cold Comfort Farm

I’ve never read Stella Gibbons’s popular English novel of 1932a parody of the romantic rural novels that Mary Webb wrote during the 20sbut director John Schlesinger and adapter Malcolm Bradbury have gotten plenty of enjoyable mileage out of it. An aspiring writer, recently orphaned, decides to soak up material by moving in with her rural relatives in Sussex, where she has a big effect on the archaic local customs. Produced jointly by the BBC and Thames Television; with Joanna Lumley, Rufus Sewell, Ivan Kaye, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, and Sheila Burrell (1995). 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cemetery Man

I haven’t seen the work of Italian horror specialist Dario Argento, so I can’t compare it to this jokey, campy, and stylish 1994 horror item by his protege Michele Soavi. I can only suggest that this is fairly entertaining if your expectations are sufficiently low. Rupert Everett stars as a cemetery watchman who takes care of zombies rising from their graves by splitting open their skulls; he becomes entangled with a lusty widow (model Anna Falchi) who winds up a zombie herself, and further plot complications are offered by his grotesque generic sidekick, a mute named Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro). An Italian film shot in English, it seems to be taking place nowhere in particularthat is to say, in Coproductionland. Adapted by screenwriter Gianni Romoli from comics artist Tiziano Sclavi’s novel Dellamorte dellamore. R, 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stefano Many Stories

Italian writer-director-comedian Maurizio Nichetti (The Icicle Thief) stars as a policeman with an overactive imagination; while trying to cope with the fact that a woman he’s fallen for has committed a robbery he’s trying to solve, he develops five alter egos, each played out in a separate flashback (1993). As a rule, Nichetti’s films alternate between imaginative efforts like Ratataplan and The Icicle Thief and relatively tepid efforts like Volere volare; this picture belongs in the latter category, though it’s amiable enough. (JR)… Read more »

The Prefab People

Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s third feature (1982) is the best of his early forays into Cassavetes-style social realism, summing up the painful, claustrophobic, and heartfelt depictions of marital discord found in his two previous features, Family Nest and The Outsider, and finding even more to say. With Judit Pogany and Robert Koltai. (JR)… Read more »