Monthly Archives: June 1997

Novel Approach [ULEE'S GOLD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 27, 1997). — J.R.

Ulee’s Gold

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Victor Nunez

With Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel, Christine Dunford, J. Kenneth Campbell, Steven Flynn, Dewey Weber, and Tom Wood.

The character-driven stories in all four of writer-director Victor Nunez’s features to date — Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green, his masterpiece Ruby in Paradise, and now Ulee’s Gold – are defined by their regionalism: Nunez operates exclusively as a Florida independent. Whether he’s adapting a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings short story set in the 20s or a John D. MacDonald novel (his first two films) or writing an original script (the second two), Nunez bases his art on a sense of place so solid that the texture of the settings is part of his subject.

The fact that all his films are relatively slow moving also has something to do with the Florida settings. Former residents of that state have told me that his movies capture not only a sense of the place but its rhythms, and judging from the novels with Florida settings I’ve read in recent years — John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest and the three wonderful Hoke Moseley novels of Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, and New Hope for the Dead) — this isn’t just Nunez’s take on the region.… Read more »

Men In Black

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play secret agents who take care of immigrant extraterrestrials in this amiable 1997 SF satire directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Addams Family Values) and loosely adapted by Ed Solomon (a veteran of both Bill & Ted movies) from a comic book series. At times the ambience evokes the work of Gremlins director Joe Dante; don’t expect any psychological depth here, but the cool wit and fun (derived partly from the premise that the cheap tabloids are the only newspapers telling the truth) are deftly maintained, and Sonnenfeld provides a bountiful supply of both fanciful beasties and ingenious visuals. With Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, and Tony Shalhoub. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Fresh Clues to an Old Mystery [THE BIG SLEEP]

From the Chicago Reader, June 20, 1997. — J.R.

Lauren Bacall

The Big Sleep

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Howard Hawks

Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman

With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Pat Clark, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Sonia Darrin, and Elisha Cook Jr.

For all its reputation as a classic, and despite the greatness of Howard Hawks as a filmmaker, The Big Sleep has never quite belonged in the front rank of his work — at least not to the same degree as Scarface, Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, Red River, The Big Sky, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo, to cite my own list of favorites. Unlike To Have and Have Not (1944) — Hawks’s previous collaboration with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, cinematographer Sid Hickox, and composer Max Steiner — it qualifies as neither a personal manifesto on social and sexual behavior nor an abstract meditation on jivey style and braggadocio set within a confined space, though it periodically reminds one that exercises of this kind are what Hawks did best.… Read more »

Temptress Moon

I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese director Chen Kaige’s work, but this opium dream about incestuous longings is clearly his best piece of direction, stylistically voluptuous and pictorial in the best sense. Shot by the remarkable Christopher Doyle, perhaps the most talented cinematographer working in Asia, and starring Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, it’s full of ravishing poetry, even though it isn’t very involving on a narrative level. Since its Cannes premiere it’s been cut by ten minutes or so and decked out with titles intended mainly to clarify the story line and distinguish characters (the usual aim of Miramax’s compulsive meddling), but this has done damage to the film’s hypnotic and hallucinatory rhythms, especially in the early sections. Once one gets past this choppiness, Chen’s use of offscreen sounds as emotional and atmospheric punctuation and his exquisite uses of color, lighting, framing, and camera movement conspire to make this a beautifully overripe example of Baudelairean cinema. Shu Kei wrote the elliptical script, based on a story by the director and Wang Anyi, set in and around Shanghai from 1911 to sometime in the 1920s. Water Tower. (JR)

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The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp and other short films

“The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp” and other short films

This may be the most exciting and revealing program in the Film Center’s entire Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. It includes Fassbinder’s two earliest surviving shorts, City Tramp (1966) and Little Chaos (1967), to be shown without subtitles, and a subtitled 1977 interview with the filmmaker–none of which I’ve seen. But I can’t recommend highly enough the selections I have seen: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s 23-minute The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968) is a multifaceted poetic provocation (starring Fassbinder as the pimp) that consists of only a dozen shots, one of them an 11-minute condensation of a 1926 play by Ferdinand Bruckner staged by Straub. Also a startling eye-opener is Fassbinder’s searingly and touchingly confessional episode from the 1978 sketch film Germany in Autumn, which shows him with his lover and his mother and is probably the most candid of all his self-portraits. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, June 22, 4:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Ulee’s Gold

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1997). — J.R.

On the strength of this film and Ruby in Paradise, Florida independent Victor Nuñez may actually be the best director of actors in American movies right now. See what he does here with someone as unpromising as Peter Fonda, not to mention Jessica Biel, J. Kenneth Campbell, and the wonderful Patricia Richardson. When the beauty of his writing is factored in with the solid, patient realism of his direction — in both his adaptations (Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green) and his more recent originals — he seems to be one of our most adept novelistic filmmakers as well. The only limitation of his fourth feature is a story that’s fairly familiar, both as an account of personal redemption — Fonda as a Vietnam vet, beekeeper, widower, and grandfather trying to hold the remainder of his family together — and as a crime story involving the former cronies of the veteran’s wayward and incarcerated son. Still, this is so stylistically fresh and sensitively nuanced that you aren’t likely to mind much. (JR)

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Life Intimidates Art [IRMA VEP]

From the June 13, 1997  Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Irma Vep

Rating ****

Directed and written by Olivier Assayas

With Maggie Cheung, Nathalie Richard, jean-Pierre Léaud,  Lou Castel,  Dominique Faysse, Bulle Ogier, Arsineé Khanjian, and Antoine Basler.


The whole point is that the world is constantly changing, and that as an artist one must always invent new devices, new tools, to describe new feelings, new situations….If we don’t invent our own values, our own syntax, we will fail at describing our own world. — Olivier Assayas, in a letter to critic Kent Jones

Like many other eras, ours is not inordinately fond of examining itself, and any movie that does that work for us risks being overlooked, resented, or simply misunderstood. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Taiwanese Goodbye, South, Goodbye, one of the major films at Cannes last year to perform this task, was greeted mainly by bored puzzlement. But a Peruvian film critic in Chicago a few weeks back mentioned to me that this movie told him more about what was happening in contemporary Peru than any other he’d seen — which suggests that our awareness of global capitalism’s recent activities may be more germane to appreciating certain movies than their particular nationalities.… Read more »

Filling in the Blanks [LE SAMOURAI & THE BIRTH OF LOVE]

From the June 6, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Le samourai Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Jean-Pierre Posier, and Catherine Jourdan.

The Birth of Love Rating *** A must see

Directed by Philippe Garrel

Written by Garrel, Marc Cholodenko, and Muriel Cerf

With Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Johanna Ter Steege, Dominique Reymond, and Marie-Paule Laval.

If much of French cinema can be said to derive from the famous Cartesian phrase “I think, therefore I am,” why does it yield so many realistic movies? Certainly fantasy remains central to a good deal of French art, past and present, but if you compare the films of early pioneers like the Lumiere brothers to those of Thomas Edison, you might conclude that the French have a certain edge in seeing clearly what’s right in front of them. I found that of the dozen French movies I recently saw in Cannes and Paris, six were strictly realist in a way that few American features are: a cheerful Pagnolian hand-me-down (Marius and Jeannette), a Blier road movie for grown-ups (Manuel Poirier’s Western), Manoel de Oliveira’s moving French-Portuguese self-portrait, which features Marcello Mastroianni’s last performance (Voyage to the Beginning of the World), an experiment in first-person camera involving adultery (La femme defendue), a mysterious meditation on rural French punks (deceptively titled The Life of Jesus), and a spirited comedy by and with Brigitte Rouan (Post-coitum, animal triste).… Read more »


Try to imagine a Russ Meyer porn movie about LA teenagers crossed with an early scatological John Waters opus and punctuated with outtakes from Natural Born Killers; you’ll have a rough idea what Gregg Araki is up to in this hyper, scattershot movie, whose own publicity compares it to a Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid. Even if the compulsively kaleidoscopic visual style (ten times too many close-ups for my taste) and scuzzy dialogue are such that only one moment out of seven makes much of an impression, there’s still plenty to be amused or nauseated by: phrases like Whatev (a reductio ad absurdum of west-coast verbal sloth), Dogs eating people is cool, and You smell like a wet dog; a face getting beaten to a pulp by an unopened can of tomato soup (making one wonder if Campbell’s paid for the product placement); blood-spattered walls color coordinated with a tacky floral bedspread; flashes of kinky straight sex and tender homoeroticism; periodic appearances by the Creature From the Black Lagoon; and so onadding up to loads of flash and minimal substance. The cast includes James Duval, Rachel True, Christina Applegate, Debi Mazar, and Chiara Mastroianni, and there are loads of guest appearances.… Read more »

Illustrious Corpses

A 1976 Italian feature by Francesco Rosi adapted from Leonardo Sciascia’s novel Il contesto. Like most of Rosi’s films during this period, it’s a political expose in the form of a detective thriller. With Lino Ventura, Tino Carraro, Alain Cuny, Tina Aumont, Fernanado Rey, and Max von Sydow. (JR)… Read more »

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold

Francesco Rosi adapts Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel about twin brothers plotting to kill a man with the complicity of their small town. This 1987 film, shot on location in Colombia, uses a mosaic flashback structure common to both the novel and many of Rosi’s previous features. (JR)… Read more »

Batman & Robin

Try not to leave a mess when you die, intones Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) in this loud, uninspired, and interminable third sequel; but the movie doesn’t take her advice. There’s a lot of designer leather and designer heavy metal and one designer disco set after another, plenty of tacky camp references to Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, plus Star Wars beasties, AIDS metaphors, computer details, stupid cold puns from Arnold Schwarzenegger (playing villain Mr. Freeze), and dollops of insincere sentimentality involving the heroes’ butler (Michael Gough). But it’s clear that writer Akiva Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher are bereft of ideas and using the MTV clutter as a cover-up. A few nice moments are offered by spunky Alicia Silverstone, but the standard for humor and ingenuity is set by Robin (Chris O’Donnell) calling Batman (George Clooney this time around) a dick. With Pat Hingle and Elle Macpherson. (JR)… Read more »

Speed 2: Cruise Control

Speed made millions on mindless, empty thrills; this laborious sequel is just as mindless and empty but lacks the thrills. Peter Bogdanovich discovery Sandra Bullock is back, her low-key lifelikeness all but defeated by a script (courtesy of Randall McCormick, Jeff Nathanson, and producer-director Jan De Bont) that flounders interminably. In place of Keanu Reeves we get Jason Patric, at his dullest yet as the cop; in place of the bus we get a luxury liner in the Caribbean; and in place of mad bomber Dennis Hopper we get disgruntled computer whiz Willem Dafoe, who’s really a good actor when he’s actually given a character to play. But there’s nary a character to speak of herejust one good explosion and one spectacular and extended disaster, badly directed. Both come too late in the game to carry much of a wallop. Even Andrzej Bartkowiak’s deft cinematography, which gave Speed much of its spark, is replaced by the shaky, semiunwatchable work of Jack N. Green. Do yourself a favor and see a movie instead. (JR)… Read more »

For Roseanna

Lots of Italians, or actors playing Italians, scream in English and wildly gesticulate for the benefit of the American tourists (meaning us) in this mainstream comedy about a villager (Jean Reno) trying to secure a plot for his terminally ill wife (Mercedes Ruehl) in an overcrowded local cemetery. The ambience here is amiable enough, though the plot also manages to get playful chuckles out of such complications as a character shooting himself. Paul Weiland directed from a script by Saul Turteltaub; with Polly Walker and Mark Frankel. (JR)… Read more »

Hard Eight

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, who’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 good, and when Hall and Jackson get a couple of good long scenes together the sparks really fly. (JR)… Read more »