From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1996). — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, and Ngo Vu Quang Hai.
Tran Anh Hung’s first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, redefined what we mean by “inside” and “outside,” architecturally as well as socially and psychologically. The same could be said about the vastly more ambitious and even more impressive Cyclo, which was shot in Ho Chi Minh City — unlike The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in a studio outside Paris — and is set in the present.
The Scent of Green Papaya — the first and so far only Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award — was inspired by the filmmaker’s memories of his mother and was set in 1951 and 1961. Tran said that his next feature would be based on recollections of his father. This led me to expect another period film, which Cyclo isn’t — but there’s no question that it’s a film about patriarchy. The first and last things the 18-year-old hero (Le Van Loc) says offscreen concern his late father — a pedicab driver who was run over by a truck — and there’s the sense throughout that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.… 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 »
From the producers of Ghostbusters comes this 1996 comic fantasy combining live action and animation, featuring Michael Jordan and the major Looney Tunes characters (Bugs Bunny is the only one who gets costar status, but they’re all in evidence). Simpler and cruder than Who Framed Roger Rabbit in terms of story and technique, this is still a great deal of fun, confirming that Jordan is every bit as mythological a creature as Daffy Duck or Yosemite Sam. I was especially warmed by Daffy’s interjection “We’re the exclusive property of Warner Brothers, Inc.,” not to mention his acknowledgment that neither he nor his furry friends get royalties for appearing on lunch boxes. Joe Pytka directed; with Wayne Knight and Theresa Randle. PG, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »
I’m not sure how thoroughly this stylish gangster comedy works, but as a surreal and imaginative fusion of Hollywood crime pictures and Las Vegas nightclub shtick, there’s nothing else quite like it. Written and directed by Larry Bishop (son of Joey), who also appears in the movie, it recounts the jockeying for position and power that occurs when a big-time mob boss (Richard Dreyfuss) is about to be sprung from a mental institution. The castEllen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Goldblum, Diane Lane, Gregory Hines, Kyle MacLachlan, and Burt Reynoldsseem to enjoy their being almost as stylized as the sets. (JR)… Read more »
A tragicomic 1991 feature by Flora Gomes, set and filmed in Guinea-Bissau, in Crioulo and Portuguese, about the secret love of a young girl who’s secretly loved by someone else. I haven’t seen this film, but Gomes’s earlier Mortu nega and subsequent Po di sangui are both beautiful and hypnotic features. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
This exciting existentialist road movie by Monte Hellman, with a sharp script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry has my favorite Warren Oates performance and looks even better now than it did in 1971, though it was pretty interesting back then as well. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the drivers of a supercharged ’55 Chevy, and Oates is the owner of a new GTO (these nameless characters are in fact identified only by the cars they drive). They meet and agree to race from New Mexico to the east coast, though side interests periodically distract them, including various hitchhikers, among them Laurie Bird. (Oates hilariously assumes a new identity every time he picks up a new passenger, rather like the amorphous narrator in Wurlitzer’s novel Nog.) The unsettling thing about this movie is that it starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract; that’s what’s beautiful about it as well. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, November 1, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, November 2 and 3, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, November 4 through 7, 7:00 and 9:00; 773-281-4114.… Read more »
A gripping, stylish, unpredictable, and provocative 1995 thriller from Spain by Mariano Barroso, who will be present to introduce and discuss the film. An ambitious petty criminal (Javier Bardem) infiltrates the theater world of Madrid by persuading a celebrated film director that he’s his illegitimate and long-abandoned son, meanwhile planning with his two roommates to rob him blind. With Federico Lupi and Silvia Munt. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, November 2, 8:15, and Sunday, November 3, 6:15, 312-443-3737.… Read more »