Monthly Archives: September 1996

Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing–if highly imperfect–documentary feature by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, codirectors of the excellent Brother’s Keeper, about the trials and convictions resulting from the brutal murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of what we see persuades us that two teenage boys have been convicted of these crimes more because of their nonconformity within the community than from any hard evidence (the likeliest suspect, the stepfather of one of the victims, hasn’t even been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge their own role in the proceedings, which makes for an incomplete version of the story. Adding to the confusion is the film’s popular assumption that seeing excerpts of a trial qualifies one to reach an independent verdict. Moreover, there are times when the intrusiveness and callow exploitativeness of TV reporters (one early on asks a bereaved mother whether she’s contemplating suicide) seem to be matched by some of the moves of the filmmakers: though it appears that one of the defendants is being railroaded in part because of his taste for heavy metal, the use of songs by Metallica behind much of the footage seems obscene rather than ironic. By the time the second trial’s verdict is read and the defendant’s mother, sister, and girlfriend are seen rushing into the ladies’ room, you half expect the filmmakers to follow them.… Read more »

Basquiat

Painter Julian Schnabel’s feature is a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat “Requiem for a Featherweight,” and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without actually refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energetic–there isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking. Others in the cast include David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott as Rene Ricard, Paul Bartel as Henry Geldzahler, and Elina Lowensohn as art dealer Annina Nosei; the actors playing fictional characters include Gary Oldman (as an apparent stand-in for Schnabel himself), Christopher Walken (in a brilliant bit as a slimy interviewer), Willem Dafoe, and Courtney Love. Fine Arts, Davis.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Basquiat

Painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a black graffitist in New York who became famous in 1981 and died seven years later. Art critic Robert Hughes titled his obituary for Basquiat Requiem for a Featherweight, and part of what’s so interesting and unexpected about this picture is that it makes fresh observations without refuting that judgment. It’s also quite energeticthere isn’t a boring shot anywhere, and writer-director Schnabel is clearly enjoying himself as he plays with expressionist sound, neo-Eisensteinian edits, and all sorts of other filmic ideas. What emerges may be unfocused as narrative, but it’s lively as filmmaking. Others in the cast include David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Michael Wincott as Rene Ricard, Paul Bartel as Henry Geldzahler, and Elina Lowensohn as art dealer Annina Nosei; the actors playing fictional characters include Gary Oldman (as an apparent stand-in for Schnabel himself), Christopher Walken (in a brilliant bit as a slimy interviewer), Willem Dafoe, and Courtney Love. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Reflection in a Mirror

This exquisitely filmed 1992 experimental feature by Svetlana Proskurina, starring her husband Victor Proskurin and written by Andrei Chernykh, concerns a famous stage actor undergoing an identity crisis–a theme that may call to mind Bergman, though the mesmerizingly slow camera movements often recall Tarkovsky. Much of the film is erotic and lyrical, with a fair amount of nudity, and there’s an eclectic score with jazz elements by Vyacheslav Gaivaronsky. The unidiomatic and often confusing subtitles make this difficult to follow in spots, but the color images are so ravishing that you may not care. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, September 22, 4:30, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Krzysktof Kieslowski: I’m So-So

This hour-long 1995 Danish documentary by Krzysztof Wierzbicki, made shortly before Krzysztof Kieslowski’s untimely death, feels incomplete when it comes to fleshing out every important stage of writer-director Kieslowski’s career with clips, but as an extended interview giving us some notion of why he retired and what his state of mind was like in his last days it’s priceless. Kieslowski’s mordant wit is trained on a good many subjects, including the behavior of Americans, and we learn that the script he was working on when he died was for a project he had no intention of directing. On the same program at the Polish Film Festival are two short films I haven’t seen–Michal J. Dudziewicz’s The Cinema Workers Come to Light out of the Dream Factory (1995), a documentary about half a century of Polish filmmaking, and Mariusz Malec’s half-hour The Quiet Harbor, which will be shown without English subtitles. Gateway, 5216 W. Lawrence, Saturday, September 21, 4:00, and Wednesday, September 25, 8:00, 486-9612.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Last Man Standing

A Texas drifter (Bruce Willis) works on both sides of the law to decimate a corrupt town during Prohibition. This 1996 thriller was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which in turn was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, and that itself begat a whole cycle of spaghetti westerns. Writer-director Walter Hill, known earlier in his career for his American versions of French thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville (indebted in turn to Hollywood noir), specializes in tweaking much-used material. With Christopher Walken, Alexandra Powers, David Patrick Kelly, William Sanderson, Karina Lombard, Michael Imperioli, and Bruce Dern. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

Surviving Picasso

One more chapter in the tasteful, intelligent anticinema of director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant (teamed here with David L. Wolper), as well as another celebrity impersonation by Anthony Hopkins. These tried-and-true strains converge in an adaptation of Arianna Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer; it’s basically a domestic biopic about how the philandering artist treatedand mainly exploitedhis many mistresses. Most (but not all) of the continental characters, including Picasso and Matisse (a Joss Ackland cameo), are inexplicably furnished with English accents. Not a movie that needs to exist, but it passes the time, and at least Hopkins manages to look like Picasso at odd moments. With Natascha McElhone, Julianne Moore, Peter Eyre, Jane Lapotaire, Joseph Maher, Bob Peck, Diane Venora, and Joan Plowright. (JR)… Read more »

Opening Night

For all of John Cassavetes’s concern with acting, this 1977 film is the only one of his features that takes it on as a subject; it also boasts his most impressive cast. During the New Haven tryouts for a new play, an aging star (Gena Rowlands), already distressed that she’s playing a woman older than herself, is traumatized further by the accidental death of an adoring teenage fan (Laura Johnson). Fantasizing the continued existence of this girl as a younger version of herself, she repeatedly changes her lines onstage and addresses the audience directly, while the other members of the company–the director (Ben Gazzara), playwright (Joan Blondell), costar (Cassavetes), and producer (Paul Stewart)–try to help end her distress. Juggling onstage and offstage action, Cassavetes makes this a fascinating look at some of the internal mechanisms and conflicts that create theatrical fiction, and his wonderful cast–which also includes Zohra Lampert as the director’s wife, assorted Cassavetes regulars, and cameos by Peter Falk and Peter Bogdanovich as themselves–never lets him down. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, September 14, 3:00, 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

American Buffalo

An OK if basically stagebound adaptation of David Mamet’s play about honor and betrayal among thieves, written by Mamet himself and starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson; Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) directed, with focus if not much imagination. Though Hoffman is more restrained than usual, there’s little here to convince me that my life is incomplete because I didn’t see this on the stage. (JR)… Read more »

Killer: A Journal Of Murder

A rather thoughtful and curious period drama from writer-director Tim Metcalfe, based on the published journal of Carl Panzram (played here by James Wood), an early-20th-century serial killer improbably befriended in the 1920s by a Jewish guard at Leavenworth. The guard, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), encouraged him to write about his life. Oliver Stone served as one of the executive producers here, but apart from a hyperbolic moment or two there’s little of his bombast. The period details are well handled, and the performancesby the two leads and by Cara Buono, Robert John Burke, Ellen Greene, and Steve Forrestare solid. (JR)… Read more »

Fly Away Home

At a time when so few American movies believe in anything, it’s cheering and satisfying to see one that believes in geese. Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) directed this 1996 feature, based on the autobiography of Bill Lishman, about a father and daughter (Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin) bonding after a long separation as they teach an orphaned flock of geese first how to fly and then to migrate; the digitally created spectacle of the birds in flight is glorious to behold. Written by Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin; with Dana Delany (as the father’s girlfriend), Terry Kinney, Holter Graham, and Jeremy Ratchford. PG, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Bloody Child

Inspired by a real incidenta U.S. marine just back from the gulf war murdered his wife and was caught digging her grave in the Mojave Desert by a military patrolthis radical 35-millimeter experimental feature by Nina Menkes (Magdalena Viraga, Queen of Diamonds) searches for neither psychological motives nor sociological explanations. Cutting achronologically between stages of the marine’s arrest and details involving a marine captain (Tinka Menkes, the director’s sister and creative collaborator) and other soldiers on the scene, as well as incorporating 16-millimeter footage shot by the Menkes sisters much earlier in Africa, the film is fundamentally concerned with the overall climate of American violence and how this affects women. Apart from Tinka Menkes, all the cast members are actual Desert Storm veterans recruited from the marine base in Twentynine Palms, California, and this authenticity is part of what gives the film power. (More debatable are passages from Macbeth periodically chanted by offscreen women’s voices, the source of the film’s title.) Beautiful and difficult, haunting and frustrating, this uncompromising feature may drive you up the wall, but you aren’t likely to forget it. (JR)… Read more »

Paradise Lost

A fascinating, revealing, and deeply disturbing if highly imperfectdocumentary feature (1996) by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, codirectors of the excellent Brother’s Keeper, about the trials and convictions resulting from the brutal murder and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of what we see persuades us that two teenage boys have been convicted of these crimes more because of their nonconformity within the community than from any hard evidence (the likeliest suspect, the stepfather of one of the boys, had never been charged). Unfortunately, the filmmakers refuse to deal with their own role in the proceedings, which makes for an incomplete version of the story. Adding to the confusion is the film’s popular assumption that seeing excerpts of a trial somehow qualifies one to reach an independent verdict. Moreover, there are times when the intrusiveness and callow exploitativeness of TV reporters (one early on asks a bereaved mother whether she’s contemplating suicide) seem to be matched by the moves of the filmmakers: though it appears that one of the defendants is being railroaded in part because of his taste for heavy metal, the use of music by Metallica behind much of the documentary footage seems obscene rather than ironic.… Read more »

The First Wives Club

Tolerable revenge comedy (1996) starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler as the spouses in question; you’ve seen it all before, but the three stars perform with style. Directed by Hugh Wilson (Police Academy) from a script by Robert Harling; with Maggie Smith, Dan Hedaya, Bronson Pinchot, and Marcia Gay Harden. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Halfmoon

This 1995 sketch film, which adapts three Paul Bowles storiesMerkala Beach, Call at Corazon, and Allalwas written and directed by the German team of Frieder Schlaich and Irene von Alberti, with dialogue in English and Arabic. It calls to mind the English features Quartet (1949) and Trio (1950), which adapted stories by Somerset Maugham, in its use of the original author as host and narrator. Basically the sections are mood pieces, and how you respond to them will have a lot to do with how much you’re seduced by their exoticism, strangeness, and atmosphere. I wasn’t much. (JR)… Read more »