Monthly Archives: August 1996

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 1996). — J.R.

This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist utopian fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman and with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception may owe something to Chaplin’s City Lights, released two years earlier, but the remarkable editing and mise en scene show Milestone at his most inspired and inventive. (There’s a parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” that has to be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite who sternly lectures the hero, and Richard Day’s deco art direction is striking. Jolson’s most memorable numbers include the title tune and “You Are Too Beautiful,” one of the loveliest of all Rodgers and Hart ballads.… Read more »

Girls Town

Not to be confused with the 1959 Mamie Van Doren-Mel Torme exploitation item, this is an uneven first feature (1996) by independent filmmaker Jim McKay about the friendship of three rebellious high school seniors; it won the special jury prize at the 1996 Sundance film festival. McKay collaborated with his three stars (Lili Taylor, Anna Grace, and Bruklin Harris) and Denise Casano on the script, and there’s more good will toward the characters on display than insight. (JR)… Read more »

The Trigger Effect

A commendable but ultimately perplexing failure. This ambitious first feature by writer-director David Koeppwhose writing credits include Apartment Zero, Carlito’s Way, Jurassic Park, and Mission: Impossibledeals with the thin crust of civility and communal trust that informs contemporary American life, and the little it takes to slice it through. The cutting edge here is a widespread power outage that’s never explained; the central characters are a couple (Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue, both giving very nuanced performances), their infant daughter, and an old friend (Dermot Mulroney, also good), and the movie recounts the siege mentality that sets in among the adults and their neighbors over a weekend. It opens wonderfully and provocatively by tracking a chain reaction of petty gripes from one character to another through a shopping mall, and thanks to the actors and direction continues to hold interest, despite curious gaps in the story line and an abrupt conclusion. One wonders if studio recutting is responsible for some of the confusions. With Richard T. Jones, Bill Smitrovich, and Michael Rooker. (JR)… Read more »

Vive l’amour

Vive l’amour

Tsai Ming-liang’s striking and beautiful second feature, a haunting look at alienation among three young individuals in Taipei–a real estate agent, a street vendor, and a gay and painfully withdrawn burial-plot salesman–won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and remains one of the key modernist works of the Taiwanese New Wave. Working principally without dialogue–with a feeling for both modern architecture and contemporary urban despair that often recalls Michaelangelo Antonioni–it gathers force slowly but builds to a powerful and devastating finale. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 17, 3:30, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from Vive l’amour.… Read more »

Curtis’s Charm

Curtis’s Charm

To say that John L’Ecuyer’s lovely black-and-white 16-millimeter (1995) adaptation of an autobiographical story by Jim Carroll–playing at the Chicago Underground Film Fest–is incomparably better than the movie version of The Basketball Diaries isn’t saying very much. Better to say that it’s sweeter, warmer, sharper, and filled with more human understanding than Trainspotting as it deals with a similar portrait of friends going in and out of drug addiction, this time in the lower reaches of New York City. Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema served as executive producers, and the performances of Maurice Dean Witt as a crackhead who thinks that his wife and mother-in-law are casting voodoo spells on him and Callum Keith Rennie as the friend who tries to talk him through his fantasy are highly charismatic as well as letter perfect. Carroll, incidentally, likes this movie himself, and it isn’t hard to see why. Theater Building, 1225 W. Belmont, Saturday, August 17, 9:00, 866-8660.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from Curtis’s Charm.… Read more »

Redirecting the Canon

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

Red Hollywood

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch

Narrated by Billy Woodberry.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

When Peter Wollen wrote about canon formation in the English film magazine Sight and Sound three years ago, he conceptualized “a motley set of cultural gate-keepers and taste-makers.” Archivists come first, determining which films to acquire, preserve, and screen; then come the academics and critics, singling out the touchstones and masterpieces; they’re followed by filmmakers and, finally, the audience. As Wollen notes, “The process of cultural negotiation among these many gate-keepers of taste results not only in the surface phenomena of lists and programs, but also in the crystallization of an implicit aesthetic paradigm at a deeper level.”

I can think of several sources critical to the formation of my own canon. When I was in my early teens, the only sources I could find were library books like Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, which is useful as a beginner’s survey, and Agee on Film, which is hampered by its limited coverage. During my freshman year in college I purchased my first film magazine: the Winter 1961-’62 issue of Sight and Sound, which contained the results of an international poll of critics about the ten best movies ever made; I resolved to see as many movies on the composite and individual lists as possible.… Read more »

Butterfly Kiss

Butterfly Kiss

If you’re sick of kinky killers and English rip-offs of American genre movies, this terminally bleak and violent 1995 road movie may irritate the hell out of you–unless you’re as impressed as I was by Amanda Plummer’s performance as an impulsive lesbian murderer searching for her ex-lover and dragging along Saskia Reeves on her adventures. Just when I was about to give up on this shocker as the worst kind of deja vu, it unexpectedly reminded me of the fury of Flannery O’Connor and some of her craziest and most alienated characters–and roped me back in. Michael Winterbottom (Family) directed, fairly adroitly, from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 9 through 15.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of two women from “Butterfly Kiss”.… Read more »

TRAINSPOTTING

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

Trainspotting

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by John Hodge

With Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, and Susan Vidler.

It would be pushing it to call Trainspotting a serious work of art or a major statement about anything, but as an edgy, artful piece of entertainment it beats any Hollywood release of the summer by miles. That isn’t much of a compliment. The awfulness of the current crop of “big” (i.e., extensively advertised) summer movies has been so unprecedented that when people ask me how I could find anything halfway nice to say about The Rock and Independence Day, I can only refer them to the even worse dreck they were fortunate enough to miss. Context changes everything: at Cannes, where I first saw Trainspotting, there were at least nine other movies I liked more, and perhaps another seven or eight I liked as much. But in the context of commercial movies this summer, the film unquestionably shines.

Adapted from a 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh, who has a cameo in the movie as a drug dealer, Trainspotting was created by the same team that turned out the much less interesting Shallow Grave: producer Andrew Macdonald, director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge, lead actor Ewan McGregor, and the same cinematographer, production designer, and editor.… Read more »

Red Lotus Society

Red Lotus Society

A thrilling and multifaceted 1994 Taiwanese feature by theater director Stan Lai about both vaulting–the Chinese martial art of leaping enormous distances–and contemporary Taipei. The mysterious persistence of the past in the present combines with Lai’s visually impressive style–along with the work of Chris Doyle, the key cinematographer of the Taiwanese and Hong Kong new wave–combine to make this one of the best recent Taiwanese features I’ve seen. With Ying Zhaode, Chen Wenming, Nai Weixun, and Li Tongcun. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 3, 3:30, and Sunday, August 4, 4:00, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from Red Lotus Society.… Read more »

The Island Of Dr. Moreau

A bewildering mixture of ambitiousness and tripe, this latest version of the 1896 H.G. Wells SF horror classic, featuring Marlon Brando as the mad doctor experimenting with DNA to create strange beasts on a remote Pacific island, shows some aspirations of being truer to the philosophical drift of the original than either Island of Lost Souls (1933), which featured Charles Laughton, or 1977′s less memorable The Island of Dr. Moreau with Burt Lancaster. But Brando’s decision to milk almost all of his lines for laughs (and plummy Laughton-like line readings) unhinges the higher ambitions of this enterprise; at almost no point does his performance mesh with what the rest of the movie is doing. Another problem is the clunky storytelling, including the strained use of the narrator-hero (David Thewlis) as an identification figure, and an even unlikelier use of Val Kilmer as the doctor’s drunken assistant. John Frankenheimer is credited as director, but given the scrambled multiple agendas at play here, he seems to function more like a bemused traffic cop. With Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider, and Temuera Morrison. (JR)… Read more »

Stonewall

Director Nigel Finch, best known for his work as editor and executive producer on BBC Two’s first-rate documentary series Arena, was HIV positive when he directed this 1995 fictionalized account of the early days of gay liberation in New York City, but he lived long enough to see the movie through the final cut. Loosely adapted by Rikki Beadle Blair from Martin Duberman’s nonfiction book of the same title, it centers on a gay activist (Frederick Weller in a nice performance) who comes to New York from the south and gets involved with a Puerto Rican drag queen (Guillermo Diaz) as well as various gay-rights initiatives; their story and others eventually culminate in the historic drag-queen riot provoked by the police raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn on the day of Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969. Hokey in spots but sincere as well as informative, this movie features some swell voguing as well as good supporting performances by Brendan Corbalis, Duane Boutte, and Bruce MacVittie. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Homage

I haven’t seen the play by Mark Medoff that this independent feature is based on, but the five central characters are so well defined that it must be impressive. A young and disturbed mathematician (Frank Whaley) gets hired as a caretaker on a rural estate in New Mexico by a former schoolteacher (Blythe Danner), and discovers to his amazement that her long-estranged daughter (Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer, Sheryl Lee) is a popular TV star he’s already obsessed with. When the daughter comes home on an unexpected and extended visit, the obsession grows only more intense as mother and daughter try to iron out their own relationship; smaller but key roles are played by former suitors of the mother (Bruce Davison as a local lawyer) and daughter (Danny Nucci as a local policeman). Although director Ross Kagan Marks gets wonderful performances out of all five actors, he’s less certain about where to put his camera, which makes his mise en scene as splintered at times as the flashback structure used by Medoff to adapt his story to the screeninteresting in an eclectic way, though not always successful. But for Danner alone, this movie is well worth seeing, and her coactors aren’t far behind.… Read more »

To The Starry Island

Politically outspoken and intricately structured through flashbacks, Park Kwang-Su’s compelling and at times witty South Korean feature (1994) deals with the problems that confront a man who wishes to respect his father’s dying wish to be buried on the remote island where he was born. The islanders refuse to let the man be buried there, telling the son stories of conflict that go back to the time of the Korean war. (JR)… Read more »

Marked Woman

Inspired by Thomas Dewey’s indictment of Lucky Lucianoat a trial where many prostitutes who suffered at the gangster’s hands testified against himthis gritty 1937 Warners crime movie is one of the least compromised melodramas of the period in expressing solidarity with women. Costarring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, written by Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel, and directed by Lloyd Bacon, it’s one of the key films discussed in the 1995 video documentary Red Hollywood, and it packs a serious punch. With Jane Bryan, Eduardo Cianneli, and Isabel Jewell. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Red Hollywood

A highly illuminating, groundbreaking, and entertaining video documentary by Thom Andersen and Noel Burch about the film work of Hollywood communistsmainly writers, directors, and actorsusing commentaries, interviews, and a good many film clips (1995). Many of the clips come from films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s that have received virtually no attention before; this video offers new ways of looking at these filmsand also at Hollywood movies in general. Contrary to the received wisdom, many victims of the Hollywood blacklist worked a lot of political and social content into their studio assignments, and the beliefs of these party members and fellow travelers were far from uniform or monolithic. If you’ve ever wondered about things such as novelist Nathanael West’s work as a screenwriter or what communists had to say for and against Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, this provocative investigation has plenty to impart. (JR)… Read more »