Daily Archives: June 1, 1996

Special Effects

This 40-minute Omnimax infomercial for the rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy (it also features visual effects from Independence Day, Jumanji, and Kazaam) received major funding from the National Science Foundation, which probably only demonstrates what suckers we all are as taxpayers. It calls Star Wars a major turning point in special effects history, though I’d argue that 2001, a movie that dissolves the very notion of the special effect by placing it in the service of some higher artistry, was more important in that regard. (Georges Melies, rightly singled out here as the father of the special effect, had the same idea, though he’s condescended to and represented by a terrible print of one of his films.) If you believe that special effects should consist of nothing but explosions, animal stampedes, and the like (they’re done mainly with scale models) and like the idea of movies selling other movies, then this is probably your cup of tea. This movie also boasts a second remake of the climax of King Kong; it’s vastly inferior to both its predecessors, though it still provides an eyeful in Omnimax. (JR)… Read more »

August

If you haven’t overdosed on versions of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, here’s one that’s quite intelligent. It transfers the action to Wales, and is directed by Anthony Hopkins (who also plays Vanya) from an adaptation by Julian Mitchell. The performances are first-rate, though this is neither cinema nor theater in any interesting sense, much less literature. (It might qualify as television, but then why put it on the big screen?) Certainly a respectable directorial debut, but not one that registers as necessary. With Leslie Phillips, Kate Burton, Gawn Grainger, and Rhian Morgan. (JR)… Read more »

Stealing Beauty

After years of filming abroad, Bernardo Bertolucci returned to Italyusing English dialogue primarilyto fashion a civilized, mellow, and generally graceful chamber piece (1996), literary in a good sense (and written by novelist Susan Minot), about a young American (Liv Tyler), the daughter of a deceased woman poet, who returns to a villa occupied by family friends in Tuscany hoping to lose her virginity and discover the identity of her father, two concerns the film regards as intimately intertwined. Switching cinematographers from standby Vittorio Storaro to Darius Khondji (Seven), Bertolucci seems less rhetorical and more assured than usual. Though the film tapers off a little toward the end, there’s a climactic scene of recognition between the heroine and her father that was one of the most exquisite pieces of acting I’d seen in ages. With Carlo Cecchi, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons, Jean Marais, Donal McCann, D.W. Moffett, Stefania Sandrelli, and Rachel Weisz. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

Multiplicity

Michael Keaton plays a family man who’s so busy that he has to clone himself three times to get everything done. Harold Ramis of Groundhog Day directed this comedy fantasy, which is badly in need of Bill Murray (or, barring that, more interesting characters for Keaton to play). Based on a short story by Chris Miller, who collaborated on the script with Mary Hale, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel; Andie MacDowell costars. The special effects are impressive, but they don’t add up to a movie. (JR)… Read more »

Murder By Contract

This rarely screened 1958 gem about the mind of a contract killer is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite thrillers, and it’s easy to see why. An existential hipster (Vince Edwards) coolly regards his work as a business to be carried out rather like Zen in the Art of Archery, until he’s thrown by a big-time assignment to rub out a woman who’s about to testify in court. Neither the screenwriter (Ben Simcoe) nor the director (Irving Lerner) ever acquired a big reputation, but here they achieved something singular and nearly perfectwith a memorable score performed on guitar, a lean, purposeful style, and a witty feeling for character, dialogue, and narrative ellipsis. Lucien Ballard did the black-and-white cinematography. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

5 Against The House

One of Jack Finney’s best and most neglected thrillers, adapted by Sterling Silliphant and John Barnwellabout five college chums scheming to rob Harold’s Club in Reno, Nevada, to prove their ingenuityyields a tidy Phil Karlson noir (1955), filmed in Reno with a fair amount of grit as well as polish. With Guy Madison, Brian Keith, and the incomparable Kim Novak. (JR)… Read more »

Wallace & Gromit: The Best Of Aardman Animations

Seventy-five minutes of Claymation whimsy from England, made over the past decade by Aardman Animations. A good bit of this consists of cute animals with charming accents, though the 1995 Pib & Pog features warring toys and the kind of violence found in Death Becomes Her. My Baby Just Cares for Me (1987) stages a Nina Simone classic in a nightclub, and Early Bird (1993) is a rather droll rundown of the daily routine at a radio station. A little of this goes a long way, but the program certainly has its moments. The main animators are Gary Cureton, Lloyd Price, Peter Peake, and Bob Baker. (JR)… Read more »

The Phantom

A clunky but charming fantasy-adventure based on the Lee Falk comic strip, which has been around for six decades, with Billy Zane as the title hero. The dogged efforts of producers Robert Evans and Alan Ladd Jr. to conjugate Indiana Jones and Batman yields a big-budget movie that resembles an old-fashioned movie serial more than other blockbusters, for better and worse. Zane’s discomfort in his purple tights and mask reeks of 50s Z-budget shooting conditions, and I suspect kids will like this for precisely that reasonthe rest of us will conclude we’ve seen it all before. Written by Jeffrey Boam and directed by Simon Wincer; with Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams (as the snarling villain), and Catherine Zeta Jones. (JR)… Read more »

My Favorite Season

Andre Techine’s complex, haunting, and luminous 1993 film considers the complications of family love across three generations, especially the unrequited love between a middle-aged sister and brother (Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil), neurotic overachievers whose mother (Marthe Villalonga), an illiterate farm widow, is approaching death. A longtime disciple of Ingmar Bergman, Techine views intense emotions from the inside out, freely cutting between the reality and the fantasies of his characters in a way that suggests Persona; this is a movie about imponderables, which means that not everything about the characters is spelled out or sewn up by the end. All the actors are powerful (including Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Carmen Chaplin, and Deneuve’s daughter Chiara Mastroianni), but Deneuve’s performance is a revelation. Pascal Bonitzer — who has long collaborated with Jacques Rivette and Raul Ruiz — worked with Techine on the script. In French with subtitles. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

First Graders

The only feature by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami I’ve seen that I dislike, this 1985 documentary, filmed almost exclusively at an elementary school for boys in one of the poorest sections of Tehran, is objectionable in much the same way as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinemaas an exploitation of relatively powerless people carried out in the name of, and with all the intimidating power of, the cinema (and without the ironic distance toward the medium displayed in Kiarostami’s best work). Similar in some respects to Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, it concentrates on boys brought to the principal’s office for misbehaving and other problems. But the influence of the camera on the proceedings is never acknowledged, and in effect the film becomes a tribute to the wisdom of the principal (and more implicitly Kiarostami), much as the Makhmalbaf film became a tribute to the wisdom of Makhmalbaf. A first draft in some ways of the much superior Kiarostami documentary Homework, made five years later. (JR)… Read more »

The Traveller

The first feature (1974) of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami follows the determination of a boy in a village to attend a soccer match in Teheran, a venture that involves swiping or scamming money from various sources and in effect running away from home. The comparison many have made between between this touchingly nonjudgmental and often comic short feature and The 400 Blows isn’t far off, and Kiarostami’s warm and poetic feeling for children and his flair for both storytelling and for documentarylike detail are already fully in place. (JR)… Read more »

Sunday

The beautifully acted story of an impromptu, one-day romance between an unlikely middle-aged couple: a former IBM accountant (David Suchet) living at a Queens homeless shelter for men and a struggling English actress (Lisa Harrow) who mistakes him for a famous film director who once auditioned her. Writer-director Jonathan Nossiter’s tender feature, winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, is full of ambiguities about the difference between reality and imagination, but at its center is a powerful undertow of shared experience that balances the metaphysical pretensions. The characters may lie compulsively to themselves and others, but they do so with a kind of mutual complicity that has the ring of honest emotion. A sweetly textured art film that grows in meaning after you’ve seen it, it confounds some of the usual demarcations we make about fantasy, reality, and at times even conventional continuity, on the level of sound as well as image, but the bedrock of feeling carries it throughout. Inspired by a short story by James Lasdun, who collaborated with Nossiter on the script; with Jared Harris and Larry Pine. (JR)… Read more »

Dead Man

A quantum leap by American independent Jim Jarmuscha hypnotic and beautiful black-and-white western (1995). Johnny Depp plays an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake who travels west with the promise of a job to the infernal town of Machine, only to be told that the job’s been taken. After killing a man (Gabriel Byrne) in self-defense and sustaining a mortal bullet wound, Blake is guided toward death by a Native American outcast named Nobody (Gary Farmer) while a trio of bounty hunters and various others try to track him down. This masterpiece is simultaneously a mystical, highly poetic account of dying; a well-researched appreciation of Native American cultures; a frightening portrait of modern American violence and capitalist greed that refuses to traffic in the stylistic alibis of Hollywood; a warm, hilarious depiction of cross-cultural friendship; and a hallucinatory trip across the American wilderness. With Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, John Hurt, and Robert Mitchum (in his last screen performance). R, 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Seventh Victim

Though not directed by an auteurist-approved figure (Mark Robson has never attracted any cult to my knowledge), this is the greatest of producer Val Lewton’s justly celebrated low-budget chillersa beautifully wrought story about the discovery of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village that fully lives up to the morbid John Donne quote framing the action. Intricately plotted over its 71 minutes by screenwriters Charles O’Neal, De Witt Bodeen, and an uncredited Lewton so that what begins rationally winds up as something far weirder than a thriller plot, this 1943 tale of a young woman (Kim Hunter in her first screen role) searching for her troubled sister (Jean Brooks) exudes a distilled poetry of doom that extends to all the characters as well as to the noirish bohemian atmosphere. (As a fascinating intertextual detail, the horny psychiatrist clawed to death by an offscreen feline in Lewton’s previous Cat Peopleplayed by Tom Conway, George Sanders’s brotheris resurrected here.) (JR)… Read more »