Monthly Archives: March 1997

Not Playing in a Theater Near You

From In These Times (March 31, 1997). Some of the material here wound up in my book Movie Wars, published in 2000. -– J.R.

There’s a new kind of factoid at large in this country on the subject of foreign films. At a time when Americans have retreated into cultural insularity and isolationism as seldom before, one repeatedly hears the same list of reasons for foreign films’ near invisibility in this country: The quality of world cinema is at an all-time low; Americans can no longer bear to sit through movies with subtitles; Americans went to European movies in the past only in order to see bare skin, and ever since American movies became sexually explicit, this market has drastically dwindled; and there are no exciting new movements in world cinema to compare with Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, Brazilian cinema novo or the new German cinema. That none of these claims (with the arguable exception of the second) is even remotely true shouldn’t be too surprising, because the “experts” who give voice to them typically define their expertise institutionally:

If the statement is being made in the New York Times, Esquire or The New Yorker, then it must have some factual basis.… Read more »

Hard Eight

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

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A pared-down crime thriller set mainly in Reno, this first feature by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is impressive for its lean and unblemished storytelling, but even more so for its performances. Especially good is Philip Baker Hall, a familiar character actor best known for his impersonation of Richard Nixon in Secret Honor; he’s never had a chance to shine on-screen as he does here. In his role as a smooth professional gambler who befriends a younger man (John C. Reilly), Hall gives a solidity and moral weight to his performance that evokes Spencer Tracy, even though he plays it with enough nuance to keep the character volatile and unpredictable. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom have meaty parts, are nearly as impressive, and when Hall and Jackson get a good long scene together the sparks really fly. Pipers Alley. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Liar Liar

Liar Liar

After breaking its back trying to persuade us it isn’t another Cable Guy, this Jim Carrey comedy settles on its central premise–a crass lawyer and neglectful father can’t tell a lie for 24 hours–and becomes pretty funny, except when it turns to goo. Carrey’s attempted self-immolation in a men’s room, which weirdly recalls certain Fred Astaire routines, may be a small classic. The irony is that audiences who despise Jerry Lewis and roar at Carrey probably don’t realize how close the two comics are; Tom Shadyac’s direction is closer to Lewis’s early films than his later and more personal work, but everything from the crazy grimaces to the sentimentality to the outtakes behind the final credits can be traced back to him. Written by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur; with Maura Tierney, Jennifer Tilly, Swoosie Kurtz, Amanda Donohoe, and Cary Elwes. Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Ford City, Golf Mill, Hyde Park, Lincoln Village, Old Orchard, 600 N. Michigan, Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Crash

David Cronenberg wrote and directed this 1996 film, a masterful minimalist adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 neo-futurist novel about sex and car crashes, and like the book it’s audacious and intensethough ultimately somewhat monotonous in spite of its singularity. James Spader meets Holly Hunter via a car collision, and they and Spader’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger) become acquainted with a kind of car-crash guru (Elias Koteas) and his own set of friends (including Rosanna Arquette). Sex and driving are all that this movie and its characters are interested in, but the lyrical, poetic, and melancholic undertones are potent, the performances adept and sexy, the sounds and images indelible. If you want something that’s both different and accomplished, even if you can’t be sure what it is, don’t miss this. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Devil’s Own

An Irish terrorist from Belfast (Brad Pitt) becomes a boarder in the house of an Irish-American policeman (Harrison Ford) in New York City, in a thriller directed by Alan J. Pakula from a script by David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick, and Kevin Jarre. As a well-directed star vehicle with a couple of good action sequences, this is good, effective filmmaking, but I was periodically bored; when Ford and Pitt aren’t lighting up the screen nothing much happens. Gordon Willis is the cinematographer; with Margaret Colin, Ruben Blades, Treat Williams, and Natascha McElhone. (JR)… Read more »

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Of all the egregious fashion spreads and sops to cultural intimidation and middlebrow guilt that have been derived from highly respected 19th- and 20th-century novels over the past few yearsas dubious a cycle of art movies as I can think ofthis has got to be the dumbest and most offensive. Writer-director Bernard Rose’s compost heap of arch poses from the Tolstoy novel has absolutely none of the elements that make the book memorable or even worth reading; for starters, forget about the opening lines about happy and unhappy families, Vronsky’s toothache after Anna’s suicide, and Levin’s exhilaration in the fields. In fact, Levin is now the tale’s narrator, even though a good half of the plot has little to do with himthe parallel stories in Tolstoy’s novel are now parallel only in the sense that unrelated books shelved together areand even the inspired notion of casting Alfred Molina in the part can’t make up for what he’s called upon to say and do. The disastrous casting decision for Anna is Sophie Marceau, complete with incomprehensible French accent, and Sean Bean plays Vronsky as if he wishes nobody would notice, a sentiment I can sympathize with. Occasional and seemingly arbitrary snippets of writing and dialogue are given in Russian, apparently to remind us that this isn’t a story about people speaking English, and the flourish of handwriting at the end is supposed to make us think that Levin is simply Tolstoy’s stand-in.… Read more »

Hu Du Men

Hu Du Men

The title of this entertaining 1996 Hong Kong movie, also known as Stage Door, is a Cantonese opera term for the imaginary line separating the stage from backstage, which becomes emblematic of the divisions in the story. That story, adapted by Raymond To Kwok-wai from his own play, concerns the producer and star of a Cantonese opera company (Josephine Siao) who’s about to abandon her career to emigrate to Australia with her husband and adopted daughter. (The anticipation of Hong Kong’s return to China is a major theme here, as it is in many recent Hong Kong films.) The adopted daughter is showing lesbian tendencies, and the heroine, a specialist in male roles, is experiencing some gender confusion of her own. Director Shu Kei–the most outspoken film critic of the Hong Kong film scene, as well as a programmer, novelist, and prolific screenwriter who’s worked for the likes of Anne Hui, Yim Ho, and John Woo–navigates issues of genre and gender with wit and aplomb. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16, 4:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Return Of The Jedi: Special Edition

Episode VI (1983) in George Lucas’s still-unfolding Star Wars toy catalog and clip collection, complete with its own set of Monarch Notes and marginally upgraded by a few images filched from Blade Runner, a few improvements on the special effects, and an occasional inflation of the music. In keeping with the prissiness of the trilogy as a whole, oedipal rage and incest are briefly flirted with and then strategically avoided, but there are enough cute, fluffy animals to stock a planet. The late Richard Marquand was in charge of direction (that is, realizing the storyboards), but if a few robots had carried out the same task we wouldn’t know the difference; similarly, we don’t see a human being in the flesh for the first 20-odd minutes of this movie, but the affective landscape hardly changes when we do. If the trilogy has grown at all over its course, Dave Kehr wrote of the original, unspecial edition, it’s in terms of commercial calculationeven the confusions of the narrative seem deliberately planted to encourage repeat viewings. Merchandising protocol deems that I consider Jedi superior to Fritz Lang’s sublime pulp extravaganza and 1959 diptych The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, which isn’t even available in this country and has the disadvantage of coming across as poetry, but the sad fact is that this movie isn’t even developed enough to qualify as prose.… Read more »

The House Is Black

The most powerful Iranian film I’ve seen is this 20-minute black-and-white 1962 documentary made by Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), commonly regarded as the greatest 20th-century Persian poet. It’s her only film and its subject is a leper colony in northern Iran. Part of what’s so special about it is its seamless adaptation of the techniques of poetry to the techniques of film, in which framing, editing, sound, and narration all play central roles. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact–without a trace of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist–Farrokhzad’s view of everyday life in the colony (children at school and at play, people eating, various medical treatments) is spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. This extremely rare film has never been subtitled, but at a symposium on Farrokhzad’s life and work, Chicago filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa will follow a video screening of The House Is Black with a discussion in English. Preceding this will be the premiere of a video documentary in English that I haven’t seen, Mansooreh Saboori’s I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again, and a discussion with Saboori. (A second screening of The House Is Black the next day in Evanston will be followed by a discussion with Hossein Khandan in Persian.) Northeastern University Commuter Center Alumni Hall, Bryn Mawr and Central Park, Friday, March 7, 8:00 (I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again) and 9:30 (The House Is Black); also Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington, Evanston, Saturday, March 8, 1:30; 847-864-8807 or 847-475-8141.… Read more »

SubUrbia

Richard Linklater, adhering to the same 24-hour frame of his first three features (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise), directs a fine adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s tragicomic play about the frustrated lives of several 20-year-old suburbanites, spent mainly in parking lots and pushed to a crisis point when an old friend who’s made it big as a rock star (Jayce Bartok) stops by for a visit. Though the material is conventional to the point of generic–even in its surprises–and remains obstinately stage bound in overall ambience, the cast of mainly unknowns is so good, and Linklater is so adept at playing them off each other, that the two-hour playing time never seems overextended or inflated. With Giovanni Ribisi (especially impressive), Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do!), Amie Carey, Nicky Katt, Ajay Naidu, Samia Shoaib, and the ubiquitous Parker Posey. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 7 through 13. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Private Parts

Howard Stern plays himself in an adaptation of his autobiographical best-seller, with the members of his radio teamRobin Quivers, Fred Norris, Jackie Martling, and Gary Dell’Abatepitching in as well. The results are somewhere between the idealized biopic tradition of The Benny Goodman Story and the anarchic comedy represented by Mr. Roberts, in which defiance of authority is virtually the only kind of gag. Directed by Betty Thomas (whose former media spin-off was The Brady Bunch Movie) from a script by Len Blum, this is basically a selective account of Stern’s radio career, with Stern narrating and playing himself from his college days on and boy actors briefly showing him at ages 7, 12, and 16. The defiant libertine who’s actually a dyed-in-the-wool family man is an American myth with a lot of staying power, and this film makes the most of it; it isn’t very good but I had a pretty good time watching it. With Mary McCormack as Stern’s wife Alison. (JR)… Read more »

Union Depot

From the Chicago Reader, March 1, 1997. This neglected gem has recently become available on DVD.  — J.R.

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From the dazzling opening shot on, this vest-pocket Grand Hotel, set around a big-city train station, is a good example of the tangy Warners movies of the Depression that film histories tend to neglect — as they do its talented director, Alfred E. Green. But pay them no mind. This 1932 film manages to sock a lot into 75 minutes, and the cast alone — Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, David Landau, and Guy Kibbee — keeps it special. (JR)

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The General and Sherlock Jr.

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1997). — J.R.

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A rare chance to see Buster Keaton’s two greatest features on the same program. In Sherlock Jr. (1924) — his most imaginative and freewheeling work, as well as one of his funniest — he plays a movie projectionist who falls asleep during a detective movie and dreams that he literally walks into the screen, with surreal and bewildering consequences. In The General (1926), probably his most beautiful effort, he plays a railroad engineer during the Civil War whose train is stolen by Union soldiers, who also kidnap his girlfriend (Marian Mack); Clyde Bruckman codirected. Both are indispensable viewing.

 

 

 

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Pictures And Sounds Ii

The kind of postmodernist exercise designed to set purists’ teeth on edge, though perhaps it will interest others: a series of silent films, including some experimental works, will be shown to the improvised accompaniment of some local bands. David Grubbs will improvise music to go with new, untitled works by Chicagoan Braden King (Dutch Harbor), Clay Harper will do something with Ernie Gehr’s Wait, Salome will accompany three films (Flip Johnson’s The Roar From Within, Tony Conrad’s Film Feedback, and Barbara Hammer’s Vital Signs), and the Flying Luttenbachers will play along with Otto Muehl’s Materialaktionsfilm. I’m not entirely sure that all these films are silent; but a previous program of this kind with many of the same performers, included a sound film with a score by Maya Deren that presumably had to be suppressed, so I suppose anything is possible. (JR)… Read more »

Cinema Cinema

A 1996 video documentary by Maani Petgar, an Iranian emigre based in Australia, about the making of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (see separate listing). Almost an adjunct to Makhmalbaf’s film rather than a commentary on it (it’s only three minutes shorter), this makes an interesting companion piece. (JR)… Read more »