What’s the big deal? I haven’t read Michael Ondaatje’s novel, but I suspect it’s better than this streamlined (if still long-winded) 1996 adaptation by writer-director Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply). A good old-fashioned love story and tearjerker with more than a touch of David O. Selznick, it’s reasonably well told and well mounted but little more. The intricate flashback structure at times recalls Marguerite Duras (though this is slicker); it moves between the Italian front near the end of World War IIwhere a French-Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche) cares for a seriously burned patient (Ralph Fiennes) who claims he doesn’t know who he isand North Africa during the late 30s, when the patient, revealed as a Hungarian count and mapmaker, fell in love with a married woman (Kristin Scott Thomas). Memories of better movies ranging from Casablanca to Bitter Victory aren’t inappropriate here, but for all the film’s effectiveness as a love story, I often felt I was being hurried through a busy itinerary; some of the secondary characters (notably the nurse, a former thief played by Willem Dafoe, and a Sikh bomb detector played by Naveen Andrews) never get enough of the movie’s attention. With Colin Firth and Jurgen Prochnow. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: November 1996
Directed by Scott Hicks from a script by Jan Sardi, this hyperbolic but undeniably effective 1996 Australian feature recounts the unorthodox career of classical pianist David Helfgotta gifted musician driven so fanatically to succeed by his ambitious Polish-Jewish emigre father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) that he wound up insane. (It’s a story that sometimes recalls Fear Strikes Out, the 1956 biopic about baseball star Jim Piersall.) Even if the film’s closing act seems too hasty to be fully believable (a common failing in biopics about living people), the high-powered drive of both the storytelling and the music is riveting. Helfgott is played at separate ages by Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, and Alex Rafalowicz; others in the cast include Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Googie Withers. Among the highlighted composers are Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, whose works are performed offscreen by Helfgott himself. (JR)… Read more »
A dry, jaundiced, and quirky 1996 look at the court of Louis XVI, seen from the vantage point of an engineer (Charles Berling) hoping to persuade the king to allow him to dam a river and thereby control a malaria epidemic in his home province. Directed by Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire), from a thoughtful if less than profound script by Remi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler, and Eric Vicaut, this holds one’s interest, at least as an alternative to the greeting-card idealism of most period art movies. (Judith Godreche is a particular standout as the daughter of a physician, played by Jean Rochefort, who takes the engineer under his wing.) With Bernard Giraudeau and Fanny Ardant. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »
I expected to hate it, but by the end I was provisionally won over to this frenetic Arnold Schwarzenegger sitcom holiday special (1996)soggy caricatures, tatty special effects, and all. As the title suggests, this has something to do with the greed, hypocrisy, and overall hysteria accompanying Christmas; it concentrates on the comic efforts of a businessman (Schwarzenegger) and a postman (Sinbad) to land a popular but scarce media tie-in toy for their respective sons at the last moment. For all the strident obviousness of Brian Levant’s directorial style, Randy Kornfield’s script manages to ring almost as many satirical changes on the theme as Stan Freberg’s indignant 50s record Green Christmas, though with the emphasis this time on customers rather than merchants. The suggestive climax involves a battle between a middle-class white man and a working-class black man. All things considered, a pretty good run for one’s money, and only 88 minutes long. With Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson, Robert Conrad, and James Belushi (as the most disreputable Santa I’ve seen). PG. (JR)… Read more »
If the Disney animated original (1961)adapted from Dodie Smith’s noveltried to approximate live action, this 1996 Disney live-action remake often tries to evoke cartoon. Coproducer and screenwriter John Hughes pilfers from his own Home Alone comedies as well as from Babe, doling out plenty of physical punishment to his working-class villains (Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams) and loads of humiliation to his upper-class villainess (Glenn Close, as Cruella DeVil, reprising her Fatal Attraction harpy in more ways than one). Meanwhile, the canine cast conjures up dog-size emotions, and the coordination of the animal kingdom, often smacking of Babe, raises the issue of just how clear the distinction is nowadays between live action and animation. Stephen Herek directs the way a cop directs traffic. (JR)… Read more »
If this Chicago Reader review from November 15, 1996 is of any interest today, I suspect this is more because of what it has to say about Australia and the U.S. than because of what has to say about a rather forgettable Bill Murray comedy. —J.R.
Larger Than Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Howard Franklin
Written by Roy Blount Jr., Pen Densham, and Garry Williams
With Bill Murray, Janeane Garofalo, Matthew McConaughey, Keith David, Pat Hingle, Jeremy Piven, Lois Smith, Anita Gillette, and Linda Fiorentino.
They say an elephant never forgets, but what they don’t say is, you’ll never forget an elephant. – Bill Murray in Larger Than Life
Farmer has bought an elephant at an auction. Gives him to Tom, Huck and Jim and they go about the country on him making no end of trouble. – from Mark Twain’s working notes for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Are you still suffering from postelection malaise? I’ve just gotten back from a couple of weeks in Australia, where voting is compulsory, and for all the complaints I heard about the downsizing of government services and ugly efforts to renege on aboriginal land rights and change immigration policies, the political atmosphere seemed decidedly less alienated and despairing than it does here.… Read more »
This is a rare screening of the original version of Orson Welles’s landmark 1952 independent feature–not the so-called restoration released in 1992, but the film as it originally looked and sounded, courtesy of a 16-millimeter print owned by cinematographer Gary Graver, one of Welles’s key collaborators during the last phase of his career. For all the liberties taken with the play, this may well be the greatest of all Shakespeare films (Welles’s later Chimes at Midnight is the only other contender). A brooding expressionist dream of the play made in eerie Moorish locations (in Italy as well as Morocco) over nearly three years, it’s held together by a remarkably cohesive style and atmosphere (and beautifully shot by Anchisi Brizzi, G.R. Aldo, and George Fanto). Welles, despite his reputation in the U.S. as a Hollywood filmmaker, made about 75 percent of his films as a fly-by-night independent in order to regain the artistic control he’d had on Citizen Kane. Othello, the first of these features, is arguably an even more important film in his career than Kane, since it inaugurated the more fragmented shooting style that dominates his subsequent work. The most impressive performance here is that of Micheal MacLiammoir as Iago; Welles’s own underplaying of the title role meshes well with the somnambulistic mood, but apart from some magnificent line readings he makes less of a dramatic impression.… Read more »
I haven’t seen the 1958 Andre Cayatte feature this 1996 Barbra Streisand picture is based on, but given the usual glumness of that writer-directora former lawyer and the French equivalent of Stanley KramerI wouldn’t have expected such lightheartedness. Adapted by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and directed by Streisand, this is a quirky romantic comedy about two faculty members at Columbia Universityan absentminded math teacher (Jeff Bridges) determined to have a sexless union and a romantic literature teacher (Streisand) who wants something more. A strange amalgamation of New Age sentiment and old-fashioned Hollywood glitz, all taking place on the far side of the moon, it’s kept watchable mainly by the performersespecially Bridges (in an offbeat departure), Streisand, and Lauren Bacall (as Streisand’s mother), but also Mimi Rogers, Pierce Brosnan, George Segal, Brenda Vaccaro, Elle Macpherson, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)… Read more »
A “critic’s choice” from the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1996). — J.R.
This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts, all recounting the same story but set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, with certain differences regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and milieu. Though it lacks some of the behavioral charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces its own likelihood to fail as an experiment in the second episode, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — not only because it takes the most risks, but also because it gives the mind more to do in the process. The actors include Martin Donovan and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself in Tokyo. The whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 8 through 14.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
A first-rate 1994 documentary by Swiss filmmaker Richard Dindo about the Latin American revolutionary. It briefly covers the decade he spent in Cuba (1956-’66) but concentrates mainly on his final months as a guerrilla leader in Bolivia before he was executed by the CIA-supported Bolivian army. Depending largely on excerpts from Guevara’s Bolivian diary that are read offscreen by filmmaker Robert Kramer, as well as separate narration spoken by Judith Burnett, Dindo follows Guevara’s progress through Bolivian locations in the present, speaking to many of the people he encountered (most memorably a young woman who delivered his last meal). What emerges is neither sentimental nor rhetorical but an authentic work of history, with all the moving ideals, disappointments, contradictions, and mysteries of Guevara and his mission. Note: the sound track of this film was appropriated by James Benning in his experimental feature Utopia. (JR)… Read more »
Only half an hour long, this is the greatest film ever made about the concentration camps (1956). Directed by Alain Resnais from a script by camp survivor Jean Cayrol (who subsequently scripted Muriel), it’s a perfect riposte to the eyewash of a New Yorker writer a few years back that Resnais, like Bergman, is noted for his metaphysical touch. If there’s a less metaphysical movie on the subject of the camps I haven’t seen it. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah is so indebted to this film that it never could have been conceived, much less made, without Resnais’ example, and Schindler’s List is a cartoon alongside it. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
Edmund Purdom, a last-minute replacement for Marlon Brando, plays a soul-searching physician in ancient Egypt in this slow-moving 1954 blockbuster from Fox. Loosely based on Mika Waltari’s novel, the film tends to illustrate the limitations of most early CinemaScope features. Michael Curtiz directed; with Jean Simmons, Gene Tierney, Michael Wilding, Bella Darvi, Peter Ustinov, and Victor Mature (a fixture of early ‘Scope pictures). (JR)… Read more »
An enjoyable, lively, informal three-part history of American movies, more than three hours long, conducted by Martin Scorsese (writer Michael Henry played a substantial role in putting it together). One of the film’s many virtues is that not all the names and titles cited are obvious ones. Part one deals with the struggle between business and creativity, offers a survey of early American cinema called The Director as Storyteller, and takes a look at three genresthe western, the gangster film, and the musical. Part two deals with film language and studio directors who smuggled subversive ideas into their work. Part three carries the smuggling theme into the McCarthy era, then winds up with a discussion of the director as iconoclast that includes a discussion of Orson Welles, among others. Any of the parts can be viewed in isolation; together they add up to a rich survey of the subject by a genuine aficionado. (JR)… Read more »
This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts. All three recount the same story, but they’re set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, and the characters change race, gender, and ethnicity. Though it lacks some of the charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces the likelihood of its failure as an experiment, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — because it takes the most risks and gives the mind the most to do. The actors include Martin Donovan, Parker Posey, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, Elina Lowensohn, Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself; the whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. (JR)… Read more »
An honorable failure, this intelligent adaptation of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best early novels falters in part because it rejects Vonnegut’s narrative structure of alternating several time frames for more chronological flashbacks. This plays havoc at times with the book’s delicate ordering of facts about Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte)a successful German-American playwright living in Germany who decides during the rise of Nazism to work as an American spy, knowing that for security reasons his masquerade as a Nazi can never be revealed. The invaluable moral of the novel, placed in the first paragraph of the introduction is We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. By placing it less prominently in the narration, director Keith Gordon and adapter Robert B. Weide grant it a lesser function, so that the powerful literary irony established in the film’s first halfall the more valuable in the context of Schindler’s List and its suggestion that there were good ways of being a Naziis eventually dissipated, and the improbabilities of the original become much more vexing without the author’s exquisite expositional strategies. But this has taste and soul before the contrivances become too obtrusive.… Read more »