Monthly Archives: June 1996

The Long Gray Line

John Ford’s first and only completed film in ‘Scope also happens to be one of his major neglected works of the 50s. A biopic of epic proportions (138 minutes) about West Point athletic instructor Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), who failed as a student at the academy but stayed on to become a much-beloved figure, this 1955 film is an almost paradigmatic example of the “victory in defeat” theme that comprises much of Ford’s oeuvre. Adapted by Edward Hope from Maher’s autobiography, Bring Up the Brass, the film is rich with nostalgia, family feeling, and sentimentality. It’s given density by a superb supporting cast (including Maureen O’Hara at her most luminous, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr.) and a kind of mysticism that, as in How Green Was My Valley, makes the past seem even more alive than the present. Not for everyone, but a work that vibrates with tenderness and emotion. A Technicolor, adapted 16-millimeter ‘Scope print will be screened. LaSalle Theatre, 4901 W. Irving Park, Saturday, June 29, 8:00, 904-5549.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Acid Western

From the Chicago Reader (June 28, 1996). This essay subsequently grew into a book, commissioned by Rob White for the BFI Modern Classics, that came out in 2000, proved to be one of my most popular, and went into a second edition; a French edition is also available (2005), translated by Louis Malle’s daughter Justine, as well as a Czech edition and even an unauthorized Farsi one. –  J.R.

Dead Man

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written

by Jim Jarmusch

With Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, Mili Avital, Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Mark Bringelson, Michelle Thrush, Alfred Molina, Robert Mitchum, and Crispin Glover.

When we speak of “seriousness” in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death. — Thomas Pynchon

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, a disturbing, mysterious black-and-white western, opens with someone named William Blake (Johnny Depp), a recently orphaned accountant from Cleveland, traveling west on a train with the promise of a job at a metal works in a town called Machine. He keeps dozing off and waking to new sets of fellow passengers, including several who fire their guns out the windows at a herd of buffalo.… Read more »

Independence Day

For better and for worse, this 1996 megahit is an archetypal 50s alien-invasion/disaster movie, though it contains dollops of Dr. Strangelove (without the 60s irony) and Star Wars (with equal nostalgia for old movie tropes). After invading bug-eyed monsters reduce New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and assorted unseen world capitals to rubble, a black and a Jew (Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum) set out to give humanity another chance. The earnestness, the effects, and the notion of a whole world forgetting its differences to defeat a common foe carry a certain charm, but like the U.S., this movie is so hamstrung trying to represent the whole worldor anything outside its own bordersthat it pretty nearly gives up at the start. Otherwise this is overlong but watchable. Roland Emmerich directed from a script he wrote with Dern Devlin; with Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, and Bill Pullman as the U.S. president. PG-13, 145 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Nutty Professor

Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake of Jerry Lewis’s most accomplished comedy narrative (1963) is most memorable for Murphy’s impersonation of the title hero, defined in this version as an obese science professor who undergoes a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, with his own formula turning him into the usual slim and narcissistic Murphy persona. (By contrast Lewis’s nutty professor, a mere klutz, turned himself into the real-life Lewis and made this complex and highly critical self-portrait the center of the movie.) Exploiting audience anxieties about food and overeating and never shying from vulgarity and excess, this remake has a touch of pathos derived from the original that is uncharacteristic of Murphy, though with none of the tragic undertones that Lewis found in the subject. I’m not much of a Murphy fan, but this movie made me laugh a lot. Tom Shadyac directed and collaborated on the script with many others; the costars are Jada Pinkett (in the sexist/alluring Stella Stevens part), James Coburn, Larry Miller, Dave Chappelle, and John Ales. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Phenomenon

Moribund, dopey stuff, about an all-American garage mechanic (John Travolta) who witnesses a strange light in the sky and turns into some sort of genius (the kind who excels in answering TV-quiz-show-style questions), with telekinetic and prophetic powers to boot. Isolated from the frightened folks in his small town, he moves toward death. I don’t doubt the noble motives behind this Disney parable, but the attempts at amiable, laid-back dialogue (script by Gerald DiPego) are painful, the pacing is sluggish, and the confused story’s poorly focused. Travolta is as charming as usual, but seems distinctly out of his element here as a nice-guy everyman who oozes significance. With Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker, and Robert Duvall; directed by Jon Turteltaub. (JR)… Read more »

Striptease

A mainly disappointing 1996 entry from comedy writer-director Andrew Bergman, who seems to be overwhelmed by both the contractual power of Demi Moore and unsuitable material (a crime novel by Carl Hiaasen). Moore plays a former FBI clerk who takes up topless dancing to make enough money to regain custody of her little girl (Rumer Willis, Moore’s real-life daughter), but about the only intriguing character is a bouncer of ambiguous sexuality played by Ving Rhames. Everyone else seems both underimagined and overblown, including Robert Patrick as the stripper… Read more »

The Plain Truth [WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE & NELLY AND MONSIEUR ARNAUD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1996). — J.R.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Todd Solondz

With Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Telly Pontidis, Herbie Duarte, Daria Kalinina, and Matthew Faber.

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Claude Sautet

Written by Sautet, Jacques Fieschi, and Yves Ulmann

With Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Serrault, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Claire Nadeau, Francoise Brion, Michele Laroque, and Michael Lonsdale.

It’s hard to think of two stark depictions of blocked libido more dissimilar than Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. But they share at least one trait that deserves to be cherished — a trait that sets them apart from most other new movies. Both offer lively alternatives to the current lackluster, middlebrow exemplars of “literary” cinema — Cold Comfort Farm, The Horseman on the Roof, The Postman, Sense and Sensibility – clogging up our art theaters, beckoning us to feel more educated and civilized and thereby keeping out other movies that might address our everyday lives more directly. (I haven’t seen Moll Flanders, but I suspect that it and the horrendous Disney animated feature Hunchback of Notre Dame are mainstream versions of the same spreading disease.)

To be fair, all four of the pedigreed period pieces named have their merits, but they’re associated more with the illustrations and texts of coffee-table books than with the experience of reading novels and poems.… Read more »

Nelly And Monsieur Arnaud

The relationship between a 25-year-old Parisian woman (Emmanuelle Beart), recently separated from her husband, and the septuagenarian former judge and businessman (Michel Serrault) she works for as a typist and editor is at the center of this masterful 1995 feature by French writer-director Claude Sautet, but what’s important here is less a matter of literal events than sexual and emotional undercurrents. Sautet (Cesar and Rosalie, Un coeur en hiver) is a septuagenarian himself, but there’s an admirable detachment and sense of balance in the way that he attends and responds to his title characters, not merely defining one through the eyes of the other. The results are seamless and profoundnovelistic in the best sense. With Jean-Hugues Anglade, Claire Nadeau, and Michael Lonsdale. (JR)… Read more »

Eraser

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a federal marshal dedicated to the witness protection programin this case he’s protecting Vanessa Williamsin an enjoyably paranoid kick-ass adventure romp (1996) with some giddily hyperbolic action moments. Charles Russell (The Mask, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) directs a limited but serviceable script by Tony Puryear and Walon Green and puts costars James Caan, James Coburn, and Robert Pastorelli through predictable paces. Schwarzenegger and Williams are regarded as blocks of decor that occasionally emit dialogue when they’re not diving out of airplanes, fighting off alligators in Central Park, evading fancy weapons and explosions in Washington, D.C., and on the Baltimore docks, and carrying out elaborate impersonations to defeat the treasonous feds on their tail. A few of the set pieces are fussy or overly extended, but the rest is tolerable bone-crunching diversion. (JR)… Read more »

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Roll over, Victor Hugo. This 1996 cartoon feature, based on Hugo’s 1831 Notre Dame de Paris, is surely one of Disney’s ugliest and least imaginative efforts. It’s especially unattractive in its fast editing and zooms. There’s a glib happy ending to replace the novel’s, a cute pipe-smoking goat, and politically correct positions on Gypsies and hunchbacksthough virtually no feeling for Paris or France, which might have interfered with all those commercial tie-ins. If your main aim is to find somewhere to park your kids, the familiar Disney formula is at your service. Among the voices used are those of Demi Moore, Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes; Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise are the credited directors. (JR)… Read more »

Lessons From a Master

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1996). — J.R.

Films by Abbas Kiarostami

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

This month is an unusually rich one at the Film Center, especially for work that’s generally unavailable. Every Thursday there’s a classic film noir, with the rarely screened ultraminimalist Murder by Contract (1958) a particular highlight. Every Friday and Tuesday there are features by the late mannerist maestro Jean-Pierre Melville — an innovative director of French art movies (The Silence of the Sea, Les enfants terribles) who eventually became a specialist in American-style gangster films (Le doulos, Second Breath, Le samourai) and a homoerotic cult favorite of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. (Catch Melville’s 1965 Second Breath this Friday and marvel at the bizarre sensibility and consummate craft that combine to lovingly duplicate the texture of a cheesy, nondescript Columbia Pictures noir of the 50s.) And best of all is a program devoted to Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, including his four major features, over the next two weekends.

Both the Melville and the Kiarostami retrospectives are close to being complete. The missing Melville titles are 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (his only short film, 1946), When You’ll Read This Letter (1953), and The Elder Ferchaux (1962), but no less than 11 features are showing this month.… Read more »

Knocks at My Door

Adapted from a successful play, this tense and effective 1992 Venezuelan political thriller follows the story of a nun who decides to shelter a fugitive from armed rebels during a civil war, the ambivalent cooperation she elicits from another nun, and the price they both have to pay for their courage. Directed with craft and discretion by Alejandro Saderman, the film sticks to the claustrophobic feeling I assume the original play had while conveying a detailed sense of the surrounding community, from mayor to bishop to shopkeeper. Wisely, Saderman veers away from close-ups when he wants certain dramatic points to register; indeed, many of the finest moments–most of them related to the performance of Veronica Oddo, who plays the more committed nun–transpire in long shots. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, June 14, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, June 15 and 16, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, June 17 through 20, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114. –Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

Welcome To The Dollhouse

An intriguing and arresting dark comedy (1995) from American independent writer-director Todd Solondz, who focuses on an 11-year-old misfit in New Jersey but refuses to sentimentalize her. It’s worth pondering whether Solondz goes out of his way to pile on her miseries, but this isn’t as obvious a skewering of what it means to be American, adolescent, and unloved as it may first appear; it’s also about the interactions of a twisted world we all live in. Winner of the grand jury prize at the Sundance film festival; with Heather Matarazzo, Victoria Davis, Christina Brucato, and Brendan Sexton Jr. (JR)… Read more »

The Cable Guy

This curious piece of work (1996) starring Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick has been passed off as a comedy, and I suppose I laughed a few times during the first third or so; but it coheres only as a vaguely homoerotic nightmare patterned loosely after Fatal Attraction, with suggestive notations on TV pathology. As such it’s a fairly interesting effortmuch more ambitious than most Carrey vehicles. Broderick plays an architect recently evicted by his girlfriend and getting settled in a new flat; the technician (Carrey) who sets him up with free cable turns out to be a lonely, psychopathic control freak who makes his life miserable. Ben Stiller directs Lou Holtz Jr.’s script with plenty of unsettling edge, and Carrey throws himself into his part as if it meant something. With Leslie Mann, George Segal, Diane Baker, and Jack Black. PG-13, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Are We Having Fun Yet?

From the Chicago Reader (June 7, 1996). — J.R.

Mission: Impossible

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne

With Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Phantom

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Simon Wincer

Written by Jeffrey Boam

With Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, James Remar, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

My Favorite Season

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Marthe Villalonga, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Chiara Mastroianni, Carmen Chaplin, Anthony Prada, and Michèle Moretti.

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I think that one never grows up emotionally. We grow up physically, intellectually, socially, and even morally but never emotionally. Recognition of this fact can be either terrifying or deeply moving. Everyone handles it in their own way. — Andre Téchiné

The principal pleasure of the Cannes festival for me was a two-week vacation from the “fun” of American movies. Maybe this fun — which points to our inability to grow up emotionally — would seem less oppressive if it didn’t also inform the American experience of news, politics, fast food, sports, economics, education, religion, and leisure in general; this kind of fun is less an escape than an enforced activity, a veritable civic duty.… Read more »