Monthly Archives: August 1997

Kull the Conqueror

Kull the Conqueror

You can keep your dinosaur romps and your cartoon fairy tales; this is the kind of kids’ movie I treasured in my own youth, sexy, pictorial, and unfathomable. Raffaella De Laurentiis produces her third sword and sorcery fantasy based on the works of Robert E. Howard (the two Conan movies of the 80s were the others). Scripted by Charles Edward Pogue and directed by John Nicolella, this one’s a campy hoot by most standards, and for me a highly pleasurable one–in part because everything from the anachronistic rock score to the simplicity of the story line to the lurid, boyish fantasies about evil and women manages to suggest the clunky innocence of Howard’s original tales. The title hero, played by Kevin Sorbo, a sort of Rock Hudson with longer and greasier hair, inadvertently becomes hunky king of Valusia by being in the right place at the right time, but then meets and is lured into marriage by the evil sorceress Akivasha (Tia Carrere) inside of about 30 seconds. Others in the cast include Thomas Ian Griffith, Karina Lombard, Litefoot, and (believe it or not) Harvey Fierstein, and SF writer L. Sprague de Camp is credited as technical adviser.… Read more »

Hoodlum

Hoodlum

Five years after their powerful collaboration on Deep Cover, director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) and Laurence Fishburne pool their talents again, this time on a crime story loosely based on the true-life exploits of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Fishburne), king of the numbers racket in 1934 Harlem–at least until Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) muscles in on the business while Johnson is away in Sing Sing. Also involved in the intricate power plays are Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Johnson’s partner Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), and Thomas Dewey (William Atherton), while the major fictional characters include Johnson’s cousin and best friend (Chi McBride) and his idealistic girlfriend (Vanessa Williams). Clocking in at 142 minutes, this is an ambitious effort to re-create Harlem in the 30s; Chris Brancato’s script supplies a provocative character study of a killer with a Robin Hood streak and only occasionally takes on more than it can handle. The grisly violence (most of it suggested rather than depicted) overwhelms the story in spots, but the interracial politics in divvying up the spoils of a city remain fairly lucid. Duke is a superb director of actors, and, as in Deep Cover, Fishburne manages to suggest a lot with a deft economy of means.¬†… Read more »

Julian Po

I have a weakness for movies described as pretentious, at least when they appeal to my imagination, but this terminally pretentious first feature by writer-director Alan Wade seems too far removed from reality to carry any sort of allure. I haven’t read the short story it’s adapted from, Branimir Scepanovic’s La mort de Monsieur Golouga, but the French title and eastern European author’s name suggest an attempt on Wade’s part to adapt European material to an American context, which is where I suspect some of the problems begin. The title hero (Christian Slater), a bookkeeper on holiday, wanders into a remote small town that isn’t accustomed to visitors and arouses everyone’s suspicions; when questioned he blurts out that he’s been contemplating suicide, and he’s regarded thereafter as a mythic, messiahlike figure. If this screenwriter’s notion of a townits inhabitants, its buildings, its faded signs (Supersweet Feeds says one of them)bore any resemblance to any real town on earth, the symbolic hardware might be a little more palatable. With Robin Tunney, Michael Parks, Harve Presnell, and LaTanya Richardson. (JR)… Read more »

In the Company of Men

In the Company of Men

Don’t tell anyone, but this blistering piece of provocation by independent writer-director Neil LaBute, his first feature, has a lot to do with capitalism and how it alters our notions of masculinity and romance; in short, it’s about how business affects the way we live and think and feel. Two 30ish male execs (Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy) sent to their company’s branch office for six weeks decide to date, flatter, and then humiliate a woman they pick at random. (They settle on a deaf typist, deftly played by Stacy Edwards.) It doesn’t sound like a believable story without the context provided by LaBute’s concentrated minimalist style and the strong performances, but every nuance here counts, and most of them add up to something pretty potent as well as scary. Check this one out. Evanston, Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

Despite its sentimental aspects, this youthful, semitragic tale of two Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong–the wonderful Maggie Cheung (Actress, Irma Vep) and pop star Leon Lai–and their fluctuating relationship as friends and lovers is the most moving film I’ve seen yet about that city’s last years under colonial rule (though the film’s final sections are set mainly in New York, where both characters emigrate). I suspect many Chinese viewers feel the same, because the film cleaned up at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping no less than nine categories (including best director, film, screenplay, and actress). Set between 1986 and 1996, and visualized by director Peter Chan with a great deal of inventiveness and lyricism, this movie is full of heart and humor, capturing the times we’re living in as no Western film could. Watch for a charming cameo by Christopher Doyle, the premier cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave, as an English teacher. Film scholar and former Chicagoan Patricia Erens, now based at Hong Kong University, will introduce the Friday screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 22, 6:00; Saturday, August 23, 8:00; Sunday, August 24, 4:00; and Tuesday, August 26, 7:30; 312-443-3737.… Read more »

The Mysterious Elaine May: Hiding in Plain Sight

This was written for the Writers Guild magazine Written By; it ran in their August 1997 issue and was later reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.

My comparison of May with Erich von Stroheim, which may sound frivolous, is actually something I take very seriously. Both filmmakers are mainstream figures with the temperaments of avant-garde artists; Orson Welles’ description of Stroheim’s style as “Jewish baroque” also fits May’s quite well; and perhaps most significantly of all, both of these highly obsessional writer-director-performers create films populated almost exclusively by monsters, yet characters whom their creators clearly love. In this latter respect, May might even be considered more radical than Stroheim because one can’t cite a single villain in her four features — unlike, say, Schani the butcher (Matthew Betz) in Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Furthermore, for me, the two greatest Stroheim films, Foolish Wives and Greed, are echoed in many respects by The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, the two best films of May.

On the evening of June 27, 2010, in Bologna, Italy, I had the rare, unexpected, and delightful privilege of spending a couple of hours with May. It was a friendly conversation over dinner rather than any sort of interview, but she did tell me in passing¬†a few things about her life and work that I’ve added to this piece as footnotes.Read more »

The Organizer

The Organizer

Marcello Mastroianni in one of his best roles, as a late-19th-century labor leader orchestrating a strike at a Turin textile plant. Directed by Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street) with an exquisite handling of period, this powerful film had a sizable impact when it came out in 1963, though it’s been curiously neglected ever since. Arguably one of the great Italian films of the 60s, it cries out for rediscovery. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, August 21, 6:00, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument

My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument

Three hours long, filmed in black and white, Arnaud Desplechin’s highly watchable French comedy-drama (1996) about the sex lives of 30ish Parisian intellectuals and academics has been compared to everything from Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore to Reality Bites. For me, it’s a lot better than the latter and not nearly as good as the former. Desplechin undeniably catches something generational and poignant about the various relationships of a part-time philosophy teacher (Mathieu Amalric)–including one with a woman (Marianne Denicourt) who winds up getting engaged to his best friend. The influences here, by the way, are not only cinematic (the aforementioned Eustache) but also literary; novelist Philip Roth is the most overt reference point. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 15, 8:00; Saturday, August 16, 1:00, 4:15, and 7:30; Sunday, August 17, 8:15; Monday and Wednesday, August 18 and 20, 6:00; and Thursday, August 21, 8:15; 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

He’s So Heavy [COLD HEAVEN]

From the August 14, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

COLD HEAVEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Theresa Russell, Mark Harmon, James Russo, Talia Shire, Will Patton, Richard Bradford, and Julie Carmen.

The sexy, volatile cinema of Nicolas Roeg might be said to operate under a kind of curse. Born in London in 1928, Roeg entered movies as a clapper boy at the age of 22 but didn’t become a cinematographer until his early 30s. After shooting such interesting films in the 60s as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, and Petulia, he directed his powerful and still-dangerous Performance (in collaboration with Donald Cammell) in 1968, but then had to wait two years for Warner Brothers to release it.

After Roeg’s first solo directorial effort (Walkabout, 1971) came his first and only commercial hit (Don’t Look Now, 1973). He followed that up with two controversial cult items (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, 1979). In 1982 he made a feature (Eureka) that had a very limited release. Next in line was Insignificance (1985), then another feature with virtually no theatrical life in the United States (Castaway, 1986), then a third limited release (Track 29, 1988).… Read more »

Money Talks

This ain’t no buddy movie, claims the publicity, but that’s precisely what this crude, antihumanistic action comedy is. Like an updated Bob Hope romp, it offers plenty of cowardice and wild-eyed grimacing from star Chris Tucker, but there’s also a lot of blood and corpses to show how much hipper we are than those 1940s audiences of Hope’s. In line with its smirking sense of superiority, pornographic glimpses of guns, cars, and diamonds are at best equated with but generally valued over intimations of bare ass. Tucker plays a Los Angeles con artist who, falsely accused of leading a prison break, turns to a stuffy TV reporter (Charlie Sheen) to clear his name. A couple of OK action set pieces and goofy conceits (such as Tucker posing as the son of Vic Damone and Diahann Carroll) can’t make up for the overall cynicism and stupidity, unless cynicism and stupidity are what you’re looking for. Brett Ratner directed from a script by Joel Cohen (no connection to the director of Fargo) and Alec Sokolow; with Heather Locklear, Elise Neal, and Paul Sorvino. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Time I Committed Suicide

Based on a letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac describing events in Denver in the mid-40s, this independent effort (1996) by writer-director Stephen Kay offers a moderate amount of beefcake (basically Thomas Jane as Neal), some overacting (by Keanu Reeves as a pool hall compadre), a lot of arty lighting, samplings of jazz records made during the 40s and 50s (to provide atmosphere rather than to be listened to, by us or the characters), and at least three dolled-up heroines (Claire Forlani, Marg Helgenberger, Gretchen Mol) who tend to swoon whenever Neal’s around. The period detail is heaped on self-consciously but not really felt, though the beat mystique as experienced through Cassady’s all-American euphoria actually gets evoked in spots, along with the sadness that usually goes with it. (JR)… Read more »

In The Company Of Men

Don’t tell anyone, but this blistering piece of provocation by independent writer-director Neil LaBute, his first feature (1997), has a lot to do with capitalism and how it alters our notions of masculinity and romance; in short, it’s about how business affects the way we live and think and feel. Two 30ish male execs (Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy) sent to their company’s branch office for six weeks decide to date, flatter, and then humiliate a woman they pick at random. (They settle on a deaf typist, deftly played by Stacy Edwards.) It doesn’t sound like a believable story without the context provided by LaBute’s concentrated minimalist style and the strong performances, but all the nuances here count, and most of them add up to something pretty potent as well as scary. Check this one out. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Career Girls

An adroitly acted though still quite minor Mike Leigh film, about two old college chums (Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman) meeting up in London after six years. As frequently happens in Leigh’s stories, each central character is accorded at least one hyperbolic personal trait: Cartlidge (who played very different roles in Naked and Breaking the Waves) moves in jerky, demonstrative gestures; Steadman’s character has a skin disease that renders her both tense and fragile; and Mark Benton, playing a fellow student who shows some interest in Steadman, stutters relentlessly. What’s most remarkable about the two lead actresses (assisted by makeup designer Christine Blundell) is how much they change over six years in physical appearance as well as modified personal style, a point underlined by periodic flashbacks. Though the film’s theme never comes into sharp focus, there’s still something agreeable about Leigh’s low-key approach, compared to the grandstanding of Naked and Secrets & Lies. (JR)

Read more »

Event Horizon

The pits. Borrowing liberally and unintelligently from both Alien and Solaris, this space opera, set in 2047, follows a rescue mission near Neptune as it checks out the title spaceship, which has been missing for seven years. (It’s creepy to imagine that the same Hollywood stereotypes and plastic rock music will be with us 50 years from now.) It seems the mad scientist who designed the faster-than-light spacecraft created a black hole in the universe, unleashing some sort of onboard hell where everybody goes bananas; but the storytelling is so clumsy we can’t be sure of that. If you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill duke it out in a vat full of red paint, here’s your chance; personally, my idea of hell would be having to see this stinker again. Written by Philip Eisner and directed by Paul Anderson; with Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, and Jason Isaacs. (JR)… Read more »