Monthly Archives: January 1997

Rouch in Reverse

Though not entirely satisfying, Manthia Diawara’s 1995 video documentary about the great innovative French anthropological filmmaker Jean Rouch–which intermittently attempts to practice a “reverse anthropology” on Rouch himself–is an invaluable introduction to one of the greatest living filmmakers. Diawara, a critic and film professor at New York University who hails from Mali, has known Rouch for years and struggles admirably to balance the filmmaker’s unquestionable achievements (including his role as a precursor of and guru to the French New Wave) with his paternalism toward Africans–an attitude that was still progressive 20, 30, and 40 years ago, when most of Rouch’s masterpieces were made, but is harder to rationalize today. Diawara fails to resolve the conflict, but at least he articulates it as honestly as possible. On the same program–which will be introduced by Chicago documentary filmmaker Judy Hoffman, who has worked with Rouch–is a rare early short film by Rouch, In the Land of the Black Magi (1947), codirected by Pierre Ponty and Jean Sauvy. And if you want to see what Rouch in his prime can do as a filmmaker, check out his Jaguar (1967) at Chicago Filmmakers next Friday, same time, same place. Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, Friday, January 31, 8:00, 773-384-5533.… Read more »

Excessive Use of the Force

This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing about it for Sight and Sound in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of Star Wars,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager to set me straight. The Reader’s facts checkers eventually confirmed my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling ease with which the Star Wars industry had seemingly managed to rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who, having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded afterwards to re-imagine what they saw.Read more »

Star Wars: Episode Iva New Hope

George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) with a few minor restorations of bits deleted from the original and an upgrading of certain effects (more beasties in the background, better sound). Almost a decade after its original release, Dave Kehr wrote, George Lucas’s science fiction adventure is an exhilarating update of Flash Gordon, very much in the same half-jokey, half-earnest mood, but backed by special effects that, for once, really work and are intelligently integrated with the story. It’s easy to see what he means, but I still prefer the homey and homemade Flash Gordon serials, which for all their 30s racism lack the antiseptic genocidal fervor and new age pretensions of Lucas’s giddy celebration of warfare. (It’s also, as Kehr suggested, very knowing about its supposed dumbness, and a triumph of market research.) But if you want to see the movie that made mild diversion for ten-year-old boys the model of commercial filmmaking, ruling out nuanced characterization and emotions that last longer than 20 seconds, this is where to look. With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, and the voice of James Earl Jones. PG, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Fierce Creatures

A delightful, sexy farce featuring the same lead actors as A Fish Called Wanda–John Cleese (who wrote the script with Iain Johnstone), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin–in a very different story, this one entertaining various revenge fantasies against Rupert Murdoch. The Murdoch-like tycoon (played by Kline), who runs a company called Octopus, sends one of his bureaucrats (Cleese) to an English zoo to make its operations more profitable or else close it down. The horrified staff of animal lovers plots various forms of revolt, while the tycoon’s crass and unappreciated son (Kline again) and an ambitious new Octopus employee (Curtis) come up with schemes of their own. Combining the gentle with the vulgar as only the English can, this lively comedy is bursting with character and energy, and directors Robert Young and Fred Schepisi–the latter completed the movie–do a fine job of keeping it all rollicking. Burham Plaza, Ford City, Lincoln Village, 900 N. Michigan, Webster Place, Golf Glen, North Riverside, Old Orchard. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

A Single Girl

Just as she’s about to start a job with room service at a luxury hotel in Paris, a young woman (Virginie Ledoyen) tells her boyfriend that she’s pregnant and wants to keep their child. They quarrel but arrange to meet an hour later, and the film then follows her first hour at work in real time. This segment of Benoit Jacquot’s compelling 1995 feature, written with Jerome Beaujour, is a stunning demonstration of moral and existential suspense in relation to duration, much like Agnes Varda’s 1962 Cleo From 5 to 7. Later the excitement dissipates somewhat, and when the film abandons real time to make room for an epilogue it becomes ordinary. But until then it’s an essential piece of filmmaking–not simply as a stylistic exercise but as a fascinating look at a hotel in operation. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 24 through 30.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Worlds Apart (on MOTHER and EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU)

This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Mother
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.

Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.

Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma.… Read more »

Zeus And Roxanne

The title characters are a dog and a dolphin that become friends; their respective keepers, Steve Guttenberg and Kathleen Quinlan, both single parents, become friends too. Written by Tom Benedek, this family entertainment was directed by George Millersometimes known as George Miller the Bad (Robinson Crusoe, The Man From Snowy River) to distinguish him from George Miller the Good (the director of Lorenzo’s Oil and producer of Babe). (JR)… Read more »

Hotel De Love

A broad, hit-and-miss Australian youth comedy, set in the title hotel in Niagara Smalls. Some of it looks like a TV commercial, and the characters’ motivations could have been generated by a computer, but the castRay Barrett, Julia Blake, Simon Bossell, Saffron Burrows, Pippa Grandison, and Aden Youngis attractive and energetic. Written and directed by Craig Rosenberg. (JR)… Read more »

The Substance Of Fire

I suspect that Jon Robin Baitz’s play, about a Holocaust survivor who’s become a stubbornly idealistic publisher of books about the Holocaust and an inflexible father, worked very effectively onstage. But despite a compelling opening, as a movie it loses focus and purpose as it proceeds. Whether this is due to miscalculations on the part of either Baitz (adapting his own work) or Daniel Sullivan (a stage director turning to film for the first time), or to meddling on the part of the distributor I can’t say, but in its present form it sheds more heat than light. The cast is good, but like me they seem to have trouble figuring out why they’ve been summoned. With Ron Rifkin, Timothy Hutton, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Tony Goldwyn. (JR)… Read more »

Gridlock’d

Tim Roth, Thandie Newton, and the late Tupac Shakur play strung-out members of an offbeat Detroit band in a well-made and pointedly satirical feature written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. After Newton overdoses and winds up in a coma, Shakur decides that the other two need to kick their habitsbut the government bureaucracy, the police, and some hoods manage to dissuade them at every turn. Hall’s anger about the way society works never blunts his tenderness toward the central characters, and all three of the leads are fineespecially Roth, who’s thankfully free of the dem-der-dose dialect Woody Allen assigned him in Everyone Says I Love You. With John Sayles and Tom Towles. (JR)… Read more »

Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sites

What dispiriting news, to learn of Raúl Ruiz’s death at age 70 upon waking today [in August 2011], just after receiving the Portuguese DVD box set of his extraordinary Mysteries of Lisbon yesterday and watching the first half of it last night. I knew, of course, that his health had been very poor, so this wasn’t entirely a shock. But it’s clearly a major loss. (A curious coincidence: Raúl lived the same number of years as the filmmaker he admired the most, Orson Welles.)

We had been friends for a time, then drew apart — mainly, I’m sorry to say, because he became a little fed up with my inability to speak and understand French more fluently. But I’m very grateful for the many hours we were able to spend together, including one opportunity I had to appreciate what an excellent cook he was. (For an excellent memoir about him, as well as one of the best appreciations of Ruiz that I know — even though I disagree with its premise that Klimt qualifies as a biopic [at least in its original, longer, and better version], and Raúl himself disagreed with the premise that Three Lives and Only One Death was one of his best films — check out Adrian Martin’s “A Ghost at Noon” on Girish Shambu’s indispensable blog.)

An annotated, critical Ruiz filmography through early 2005 can be found here.

Read more »

Fierce Creatures

A delightful, sexy farce featuring the same lead actors as A Fish Called WandaJohn Cleese (who scripted with Iain Johnstone), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palinbut in a very different story. A Rupert Murdoch-like tycoon (Kline), who runs a company called Octopus, sends one of his bureaucrats (Cleese) to an English zoo with instructions to make it more profitable or close it down; the horrified staff of animal lovers plot various forms of revenge, while the tycoon’s crass and unappreciated son (Kline again) and an ambitious new Octopus employee (Curtis) come up with schemes of their own. Combining the gentle with the vulgar as only the English can, this lively comedy is bursting with character and energy, and directors Robert Young and Fred Schepisi (who completed the movie) do a fine job of keeping it all rollicking. (JR)… Read more »

Albino Alligator

Kevin Spacey’s directorial debut (1996) is obviously the price we’ve had to pay for his Oscar for The Usual Suspectsitself part of the price we’ve been paying for the success of Quentin Tarantino. Honoring his constituency, Spacey directs a script by Christian Forte designed to put us into a Tarantino frame of mind. Three desperate robbers (Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise, William Fichtner) fleeing from a failed heist hole up in a New Orleans bar significantly known as Dino’s Last Chance, a holdover from prohibition, where Faye Dunaway, Viggo Mortensen, Skeet Ulrich, and M. Emmet Walsh as hostages get to act their hearts out while Joe Mantegna as a cop on the outside tries to get in. The set decor is more intricate than any of the characters, the mise en scene fancy but gratuitous, the story strictly standard issue. (JR)… Read more »

Forbidden Fruit [The Best Movies of 1996]

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1997). — J.R.

Compiling a list of the best new (or “new”) movies that opened in Chicago in 1996, I’ve come up with 40 titles, half of which are foreign-language pictures. Many of my colleagues would regard choosing so many foreign movies as perversely esoteric, but it’s hard for me to fathom why. I willingly concede that this country has one of the strongest national cinemas in the world — probably the greatest, which is fully reflected in my including 19 American films in my list and only 5 from France; 3 from Taiwan; 2 apiece from England, Hong Kong, and Iran; and 1 each from mainland China, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam.

Of course I haven’t seen nearly as many non-American films as American, but I’ve made a stab at seeing those that have made it to Chicago. I have long been bewildered by how the majority of my colleagues almost never mention any cinema that isn’t English-language when they draw up their end-of-the-year lists. Is American cinema really that wonderful and non-American cinema really that awful? Of course not; the reason most reviewers don’t include foreign pictures on their lists is that they don’t see them.… Read more »

Mother

All of writer-director-actor Albert Brooks’s comedy features are good, but this one, his fifth, about a twice-divorced science-fiction writer moving back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds) in order to figure out why he has problems with women, is probably the most accessible as well as the best realized. For all the seriousness of the subject matter, Brooks and his customary cowriter Monica Johnson make it pretty hilarious. Brooks’s comedies, like Woody Allen’s, are basically multifaceted reflections on neurosis, but the probing goes a lot deeper and the human landscape is usually more generously furnished. Understanding isn’t limited to the lead character–there’s every bit as much insight into the characters of Reynolds and Rob Morrow (the hero’s kid brother, a sports agent). A must-see. Pipers Alley, Esquire, Gardens.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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