From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1996). In a recent and rather interesting book about Mike Leigh published by the University of Illinois Press, Sean O’Sullivan takes exception to this review (among others), with intriguing results. — J.R.
Secrets and Lies
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Mike Leigh
With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Elisabeth Berrington, Lee Ross, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Michele Austin, and Lesley Manville.
I’ve seen Secrets and Lies three times since it premiered at Cannes in May, and each time the movie’s apparent rough patches have seemed smoother — clear evidence that writer-director Mike Leigh knows exactly what he’s doing and why. But whether his knowledge and a viewer’s recognition of it make this comedy-drama a masterpiece is another matter. Some of my hipper colleagues feel a little suspicious about the film’s mainstream pitch, wondering whether the whole thing finally goes down a bit too easily, given Brenda Blethyn’s quavering histrionics, the upbeat conclusion, the snugness of the whole concept. But I can hardly begrudge a filmmaker as talented as Leigh a way of conveying his gifts to a wider audience; after all, Secrets and Lies doesn’t represent the same sort of coarsening of a filmmaker’s vision as Jane Campion’s The Piano, coming after Sweetie.
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As we go to press, I’ve seen about a third of the 30-odd programs being shown by the Chicago International Film Festival over its final weekend (not counting Hugo winners and audience choices), only three of which I’d place in the category of must-see: Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, showing Sunday at Pipers Alley; Alex van Warmerdam’s The Dress, Saturday at the Three Penny and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, Saturday at the Music Box. The latter two movies haven’t been picked up, and even if they get distributors chances are they won’t reappear for another year.
I can add a few less urgent recommendations. William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) was, oddly enough, a favorite film of Carl Dreyer; when the Danish government paid tribute to its greatest filmmaker by inviting him to program an art cinema in Copenhagen, he gave this black and white comedy, which won Audrey Hepburn an Oscar, the longest run. Keith Gordon’s Mother Night (also scheduled to open soon) is a flawed rendering of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s better early novels, but for my money better than most Merchant-Ivory adaptations, especially during its first half.
Thief and Heat (1995) are both effective Michael Mann thrillers–especially Thief, which is said to be showing in a newly restored “director’s cut”–and Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), for all its schmaltz, has the undeniable benefit of Barbra Streisand in her early prime.… Read more »
Leslie Thornton’s remarkable, mind-boggling experimental feature-length cycle of short films which she’s been working on and releasing in episodes since 1981 is a postapocalyptic narrative about two children feeling their way through the refuse of late-20th-century consumer culture; the films employ a wide array of found footage as well as peculiar, unpredictable, and often funny performances from two “found” actors. Apart from one startling and beautiful color shot in the penultimate episode, Whirling, the whole cycle is in black and white. (Episodes that have been added since an earlier version of the cycle showed in Chicago six years ago include Introduction to the So-Called Duck Factory and The Problem So Far.) Highly idiosyncratic and deeply creepy, this series as a whole – which includes passages in both film and video, sometimes shown concurrently – represents the most exciting recent work in the American avant-garde, a saga that raises questions about everything while making everything seem very strange. Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, Friday, October 18, 8:00, 773-384-5533.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo still.… Read more »
This first feature has been described as school of Cassavetes, because it stars Gena Rowlands and the filmmaker in question is John Cassavetes’s son Nick. But the best that can be said for this fair-to-middling soap opera about a widow (Rowlands) getting a second lease on life is that, apart from being actor-oriented, it isn’t a copy of John Cassavetes’s work at all. It’s something much more conventional and sentimentaldecent enough, I suppose, on its own terms, but not the radical rethinking of art and human personality one associates with Cassavetes pere. With Marisa Tomei, Gerard Depardieu (even hammier than usual), and Jake Lloyd; Helen Caldwell collaborated on the script. (JR)… Read more »
Reviewers who called this sincere if highly familiar look at aimless lives in Brooklyn (1996, 94 min.)a first feature written, directed by, and starring Steve Buscemisuperior to John Cassavetes, whom Buscemi has described as a major influence, have done a radical disservice to the modest virtues of this picture, as well as misconstrued Cassavetes’s own multifaceted achievement (which had more to do with close scripting than most people imagine). The title refers to a bar where most of the characters hang out, and though the film occasionally conveys some of the sweetness of early Cassavetes it has none of the mystery: these characters are enjoyable types but not a lot more. Certainly the cast has fun: Anthony LaPaglia, Elizabeth Bracco, Mark Boone Jr., Chloe Sevigny, Daniel Baldwin, and Carol Kane. (JR)… Read more »
Like Spike Lee’s much better Do the Right Thing, this 1996 feature about a group of black males from east Los Angeles who travel by bus to the Million Man March tries to present a cross section of contemporary black attitudes, juggling them with intelligence. Here the director is more self-conscious about his didactic aims, which limits him in some respects, but there’s an engaging roughness about his visual approach that keeps this movie footloose and inventive. Written by Reggie Rock Blythewood; with Richard Belzer, DeAundre Bonds, Andre Braugher, Ossie Davis (especially impressive), Charles S. Dutton, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, and Gabriel Casseus. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »
Another John Grisham adaptation (1996). this one written by William Goldman and Chris Reese and directed by the often interesting James Foley. This time, alas, Foley hits a substantial roadblockmaterial so bereft of plot and insight that all it can provide is actorly turns with no cogent means for tying them together. Chris O’Donnell plays a lawyer who’s trying to get a stay of execution for his grandfather (Gene Hackman), a convicted racist killer. The best turns come from Faye Dunaway as O’Donnell’s alcoholic aunt and Millie Perkins in a smaller part as the widow whose husband and twin boys were killed by Hackman’s bomb; Hackman does the best he can with a character that seems to be constructed out of loose ends. I spent a lot of time waiting in vain for a revelation that would justify the movie’s slow buildup. With Lela Rochon, Robert Prosky, Raymond Barry, David Marshall Grant, Bo Jackson, and Josef Sommer. (JR)… Read more »
This seems to be a fairly desperate year for the Chicago International Film Festival. What makes me grit my teeth more than lick my lips at the annual prospect, especially ever since the loss of Marc Evans as festival programmer, is the sense of barely contained chaos–chaos in the selections, chaos in the programming, and chaos in determining a coherent vision of why we need this festival in the first place. Operating under an enormous financial deficit, the festival doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when it once again cancels programs that have been announced as confirmed, and reveals, several days after distributing to the public a calendar of events, that ten of the programs at the Music Box were scheduled without the theater’s knowledge or consent. (a fresh press release cheerfully announced, “the Festival is delighted by the opportunity to expand its screening venues to three locations throughout the city’s north side,” with the Three Penny taking over the ten Music Box screenings).
I think it’s a good sign that the festival has shrunk from 18 days to 10, with 80 selections instead of 120-odd. Much as I’d like to say the more the merrier, the festival has a habit of biting off more than it (or we) could chew.… Read more »
I haven’t read Truman Capote’s early autobiographical novel since my teens, and it’s possible that it was too cute for words in the first place, but this adaptation by Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis, directed by Charles Matthau (son of Walter, who costars), must be even cuter. A lot of welcome if obvious care has been taken with period detail (a small southern town in the 40s), but the difference between this movie and Terence Davies’s The Neon Bible is the difference between plastic and crystal. Despite an impressive castEdward Furlong, Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nell Carter, Roddy McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Durning, and Joe Don Baker, and Jack Lemmon in a fancy turneveryone is encouraged either to overact or to resemble a stuffed animal, and the music is as drippy as molasses. (JR)… Read more »
A charming lightweight comedy, about a young scientist from Wisconsin (Matt Ross) who gets a job as a rice geneticist in New York after being dumped by his girlfriend; he moves in with a ladies’ man (Kevin Carroll) in the East Village, where he begins to pursue a musician (Callie Thorne). This first feature by writer-director John Walsh is helped in no small measure by Benny Golson’s jazz score. (JR)… Read more »
Geena Davis and her director-husband Renny Harlin crawled out from under the rubble of Cutthroat Island, which at the time was reported to be the costliest flop in Hollywood history, to make an even nastier action thriller, about a housewife with amnesia who discovers she’s actually a trained government assassin (and apparently takes her orders directly from La femme Nikita). Frankly, if I had to see either Harlin-Davis movie again, I’d opt for the klutzy unpleasantness of Cutthroat Island over the efficient if equally stupid unpleasantness of this 1996 release, with its protracted torture sequences and its overall celebration of pain and injury (You’re gonna die screaming, and I’m gonna watch). Still, if you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Geena Davis say Suck my dick, New Line probably deserves your money. Shane Black is the credited writer, and Samuel L. Jackson costars; with Yvonne Zima and Craig Bierko. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »
Neil Jordan reported that he never lost more sleep over the making of a film than he did with this one; I can’t think of anything that helped me catch up on my sleep more. An epic about the Irish patriot (Liam Neeson) during the last years of his life (1916-’22), it clearly represents a lot of thought on Jordan’s part, yet it’s dramatic and cinematic sludge. With Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman, and Stephen Rea. It won prizes for best film and best actor (Neeson) at the Venice film festival. (JR)… Read more »
A surprisingly effective action-adventure (1996) set in east Africa in 1896, about a couple of man-eating lions on a rampage that claimed more than 130 victims. Val Kilmer stars as an engineer and bridge builder who joins forces with a famous big-game hunter (Michael Douglas) to catch and kill the lions, which are preventing the engineer from making his deadline. The script is by William Goldman, the direction by Stephen Hopkins, and the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Part of what makes this work so well is the mythicizing of the lions, rather as the leopard was in Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man. This is generally better in the broad sweep of its storytelling than in the jumble of flash cuts depicting the lion attacks, though the final action sequence makes up for a lot of the earlier clunkiness. With Brian McCardie, John Kani, Tom Wilkinson, and Emily Mortimer. (JR)… Read more »
Tim McCann’s first feature (1995), made at a cost of $27,000 and distributed by McCann himself, bears absolutely no relation to the Jack Kerouac novel of the same title. Come to think of it, this disturbing and persuasive critique of machismo, which refuses to restrict the blame to one or two individuals and ends up indicting a whole milieu, is also very unlike anything else in recent American filmmaking. A young blue-collar worker (Michael Rodrick) returns to Brooklyn after a short trip to discover that his best friend (Peter Bassett) has raped his girlfriend. In the ensuing tragicomic chain of events, everyone behaves badly and foolishly, and McCann’s direction in nailing down this destructive behavior rarely falters. The lack of a clear moral center makes this a challenging film, but also one with an undeniable moral vision. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, October 4, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday, October 5, 6:00, 7:45, and 9:30; Sunday, October 6, 6:30 and 8:30; and Monday through Thursday, October 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »
Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t regard this three-hour 1995 epic by Theo Angelopoulos as a great film, but it’s certainly something to see, especially for enthusiasts of Angelopoulos and his long-take style. This Greek-French-Italian production stars Harvey Keitel as a Greek filmmaker working in the U.S. who travels home to make a documentary about the pioneering filmmakers the Manakias brothers. Hoping to recover some of their early films about everyday life in the Balkans in a film archive in Sarajevo, he travels through Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and finally Bosnia, a trek that echoes Homer’s Odyssey. Magisterially filmed, this movie demands at almost every instant to be regarded as a masterpiece, though for me it’s too full of itself and its own virtue. Still, I can’t deny it’s an experience worth having. With Maia Morgenstern, Erland Josephson, and Thanassis Vengos. (JR)… Read more »