Daily Archives: October 1, 1996

Ulysses’ Gaze

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 »

Cyclo

A young man in Ho Chi Minh City has his pedicab stolen and is coerced into working for the mob in this troubling and brilliant 1994 feature by Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of the Green Papaya)a film that combines elements of expressionism and surrealism with location shooting in eerie and original ways. Whether you like it or not, this will probably stay with you a long time. With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung, and Tran Nu Yen-khe. (JR)… Read more »

The Society Of The Spectacle

A work that often appears to be deliberately slapped together rather than composed, this provocative 1973 black-and-white experimental essay film by the late, legendary Guy Debord — adapted from his 1967 book of the same title — fascinates not only as a rebellious statement within a post-1968 French context but as a work that may seem typically French intellectual in a contemporary American context. A theoretical post-Marxist film, it offers extended blocks of text (to be read or heard) about media and spectacle, along with clips of movies that range from silent Russian classics to Johnny Guitar and Rio Grande (both dubbed into French) to The Shanghai Gesture and Mr. Arkadin to soft-core porn. It isn’t put together to entertain or even to go down easily, but it rarely ceases to be stimulating. Debord refused to let any of his films be shown anywhere for nearly a decade after his publisher-producer was assassinated and he himself was denounced in the French press as a terrorist — a self-imposed ban that he removed only a few months before his suicide. This film, apparently his longest, remains a priceless document. (JR)… Read more »

Brothers And Sisters Of The Toda Family

This 1941 film is one of the few upper-class family dramas by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and the domestic furnishings and how they’re framed help make it one of his most visually ravishing works. The events center on the untimely death of the father. In Japanese with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sleep My Love

A minor Douglas Sirk thriller, better in atmospherics than story logic (1948). Adapted from a Leo Rosten novel, it’s about a man (Don Ameche) who’s trying to drive his wife (Claudette Colbert) crazy and the man (Robert Cummings) who comes to her rescue. Aficionados of esoterica should note that Cy Endfield wrote the Chinatown wedding sequence. With Hazel Brooks, George Coulouris, and Raymond Burr. (JR)… Read more »

The Immortal Story

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1996). This film is now readily available in the U.S. and the U.K., and while writing an essay about it for the Criterion release, I came to treasure it a lot more than I did when I wrote this capsule. — J.R.

This rarely screened hour-long Isak Dinesen adaptation by Orson Welles — his first release in color (1968), originally intended for a never-completed anthology film — is far from one of his most achieved works. But thematically and poetically it exemplifies his late lyrical manner, and it provides clues as to what his most treasured late project — another Dinesen adaptation called The Dreamers, for which he shot a few tests — might have looked like. Set in 19th-century Macao (though filmed modestly in France and Spain), this parablelike tale stars Welles as a lonely and selfish merchant who gets his Jewish secretary (Roger Coggio) to hire a courtesan (Jeanne Moreau) and a sailor (Norman Eshley) to reenact a story. It’s awkward in spots yet exquisite. (JR)

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E.t. The Extra-terrestrial

Steven Spielberg’s enormously successful SF tearjerker (1982) remains a veritable manifesto about what it feels like to be ten years old, male, suburban, lonely, and captive to the Spielberg spell. Does that include everybody? No, but the movie’s unusual achievement is to make it seem that way. With Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton, and Drew Barrymore; screenplay by Melissa Mathison. PG, 120 min.… Read more »

Desolation Angels

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 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. (JR)… Read more »

That Thing You Do!

Tom Hanks turns writer-director in a pleasant and energetic 1996 feature set in 1964, about four friends from Erie, Pennsylvania, who form a rock band and have a hit, then reach Los Angeles and the big time and see what’s in store for them. Hanks, playing their manager, seems to take a certain pleasure in portraying someone sleazy for a change. Though Hanks keeps the satirical and critical aspects of this look at show biz fairly light, there’s a lot of conviction and savvy behind the steadiness of his gaze, and his economy in evoking the flavor of the period at the beginning of the picture is priceless. With Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Charlize Theron, and Ethan Embry. (JR)… Read more »

Bound

Larry and Andy Wachowski, who scripted Assassins, wrote and directed this adroit and sexy 1996 crime thriller about the hot romance between a gangster’s moll (Jennifer Tilly) and the ex-con who’s her neighbor (Gina Gershon). Eventually they concoct an elaborate scam to rip off the gangster (Joe Pantoliano) — a money launderer for the mob who temporarily has a couple million dollars. (The laundering here involves literally washing blood off bills.) This gets very suspenseful (as well as fairly gruesome) in spots, and if it never adds up to anything profound, it’s still a welcome change to have a lesbian couple as the chief identification figures. With Richard Sarafian. (JR)

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Blush

Li Shaohong, the only female member of China’s celebrated Fifth Generation of filmmakers, offers a remarkable retrospective look (1995) at the 1949 communist revolution. Adapting a novel by Su Tong, author of the source material for Raise the Red Lantern, it follows two former Shanghai prostitutes who are close friends and one of their favorite former clients and their shifting fortunes over many years, and its conclusions about their separate strengths, weaknesses, and destinies are never simple or obvious. The beautiful cinematography, by Li’s husband Zeng Nianping, frames much of the action from a distance, in a manner that recalls both Chinese painting and 30s Mizoguchi, while remaining unusually sensitive to architecture (for example, the film wonderfully reveals the interactions between one couple and their downstairs neighbors with many shots framed from the courtyard). This is the best mainland Chinese feature I saw in the mid-90s. In Cantonese with subtitles. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton, working as a producer at Disney, employed stop-motion animation to flesh out a story he’d first dreamed up while working at the same studio a dozen years beforea tale about the havoc that ensues when Jack Skellington, the pipe-cleaner hero of Halloween Town, decides to take over the duties of Santa Claus at Christmastime. As adapted by Michael McDowell and scripted by Caroline Thompson, this 1993 release is at worst a macabre Muppet movie, at best an inspired jaunt. The set designs are ingenious and the songs (music and lyrics by Danny Elfman) are fairly good. Directed by Henry Selick, with the voices of Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Elfman, and Paul Reubens. PG, 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

The World Of Apu

The final and weakest part of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (begun with Pather Panchali and continued with Aparajito), this 1959 feature follows Apu through an arranged marriage that unexpectedly blossoms and then ends tragically, followed by a dark period and eventual spiritual regeneration. Though the rhythm of the storytelling is choppy and Apu himself seems incompletely realized, the first appearance of the remarkable Sharmila Tagore as his well-to-do bride upgrades the film’s middle section, and the final scene between the title hero and the son he’s never known certainly carries a charge. In Bengali with subtitles. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »