Monthly Archives: November 1997

Kiss or Kill

Who needs another killer couple fleeing cross-country with cops in hot pursuit? Yet thanks to this Australian thriller’s aggressive and unnerving formal approach–jump cuts that send us hurtling through the story like a needle skipping across a record and an inventive camera style that defamiliarizes characters as well as settings–the duo’s paranoia is translated into the slithery uncertainty of our own perceptions. The creepy alienation of the lead couple (Frances O’Connor and Matt Day) from their victims and the world in general eventually infects their own relationship, and variations on their mistrust crop up between the cops pursuing them and in just about every other cockeyed existential encounter in the film. Apart from some juicy character acting and striking uses of the outback as landscape, what distinguishes this genre exercise by veteran director Bill Bennett is the metaphysical climate he produces through style, transforming suspense into genuine dread; this is the most interesting reworking of noir materials I’ve seen since After Dark, My Sweet or The Underneath. Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Guantanamera

The last feature (1994, 104 min.) of late Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment, The Last Supper), codirected by Juan Carlos Tabio and starring Alea’s wife Mirtha Ibarra. This charming and earthy road comedy, about a solution for the gasoline shortage hatched at an undertakers’ convention, fleetingly recalls William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as well as Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Bus Ride. It’s touching to see Alea, a couple of years before his own death, deal with death as humorously and as unpretentiously as he does here. Check this one out. In Spanish with subtitles.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Errol Morris’s best film to date–a clear advance on Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and A Brief History of Time–alternates interviews with four unconnected individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat specialist, and a robot scientist. The result is more a poem than a documentary, made coherent by Morris’s formal precision: he links found footage with the interviews, black and white with color, in a dreamlike continuity that invites the viewer to trace his or her own connections. It’s not at all difficult to watch, as the premise might suggest; in fact it’s beautiful as well as moving, an achievement of synthesis that announces Morris’s arrival as a master. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 21 through 27. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Colonial Imaging: Early Films From the Netherlands Film Museum

Colonial Imaging: Early Films From the Netherlands Film Museum

Imagine you’re an American (or Dutch or French) tourist or explorer during the 1910s or 20s, visiting Africa, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and other remote places, gawking at the natives and their everyday lives and customs. At once fascinating and unnerving, this two-day, five-part program of silent films documents that experience. Having previewed about half of these intrusive travelogues on video, minus music and in some cases the early color processes some of them employed, I still found this a dazzling–and troubling–basket of riches. The filmmakers and their presuppositions are as clearly inscribed in the footage as their subjects, whether the spectacle happens to be Egyptians praying in 1920, the remarkable (and racist) animated interludes in a 1918 item about an American national park, extended looks at life in the Dutch East Indies in the teens, or 1928 glimpses of the American south (which imperialistically includes Cuba and Panama). When Martin and Osa Johnson, filming “Australian cannibals” in 1917, implicitly contrast their own “precautionary” rifles with those of the “bloodthirsty tribes” armed by “unscrupulous traders,” the duplicity becomes transparent. Saturday’s programs will include symposia at which an impressive array of local and visiting scholars (among them the University of Chicago’s Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Yuri Tsivian, three of the most sophisticated silent film specialists to be found anywhere) will delve into the meanings and implications of this rare material.… Read more »

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

With this 1997 drama, producer-director Clint Eastwood continued his welcome practice of trying something different on every picture, turning this time to a best-seller very different from The Bridges of Madison County, the source material for his previous film. The liberties taken by John Lee Hancock in adapting John Berendt’s atmospheric nonfiction novel move the original story even closer to fiction: four murder trials are collapsed into one, the author-narrator is replaced with a made-up hero (John Cusack), and a lot of languid local color is distilled into a meandering story line. But Eastwood finds good ways of honoring the book: shooting on location in Savannah, using a very tasteful selection of tunes by Johnny Mercer (a Savannah native) on the sound track, and even getting local drag queen Lady Chablis to play an expanded version of her own part in the original story. (She’s not exactly a film actor, but there’s something in the way that Eastwood turns her loose that makes the movie come alive.) The results are more leisurely and character driven than most contemporary movies are encouraged to be, and positively drip with juicy southern ambience. Kevin Spacey is at his best playing the millionaire antiques specialist who shoots his rough-trade lover and employee (Jude Law).… Read more »

Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek

Su Friedrich’s 64-minute, black-and-white 1996 narrative about lesbian adolescence in the 60s makes impressive use of found footage from that period; the match between this material and the film’s fiction is often uncanny, assisted by wonderful performances from Chels Holland, Ariel Mara, and Alicia Manta, among others. Friedrich scripted with Cathy Nan Quinlan. On the same program, Friedrich’s Damned If You Don’t (1987), which deconstructs Black Narcissus and delves into history while presenting a portrait of a young nun who fights a losing battle against her sexual desires. Chestnut Station, Saturday, November 15, 5:00.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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A Brighter Summer Day

A Brighter Summer Day

I’ve never read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but Edward Yang’s astonishing 230-minute epic (1991), set over one Taipei school year in the early 60s, would fully warrant the subtitle “A Taiwanese Tragedy.” A powerful statement from Yang’s generation about what it means to be Taiwanese, it has a novelistic richness of character, setting, and milieu unmatched by any other 90s film (a richness only partially apparent in its three-hour version). What Yang does with objects — a flashlight, a radio, a tape recorder, a Japanese sword — resonates more deeply than what most directors do with characters, because along with an uncommon understanding and sympathy for teenagers Yang has an exquisite eye for the troubled universe they inhabit. This is a film about alienated identities in a country undergoing a profound existential crisis — a Rebel Without a Cause with much of the same nocturnal lyricism and cosmic despair. Notwithstanding the masterpieces of Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese new wave starts here. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, November 15, 2:30, and Thursday, November 20, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Dallas Doll

Dallas Doll

This 1994 feature is much too goofy to qualify as an absolute success, but it’s so unpredictable, irreverent, and provocative that you may not care. Australian writer-director Ann Turner has a lot on her mind, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to plot out many of her quirky moves in advance. Imagine Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (with Sandra Bernhard in the Terence Stamp part, seducing most of a bourgeois Australian family and enough other country-club notables to wind up as mayor) crossed with Repo Man and you’ll get some notion of the cascading audacity. This is a satire about foreign invasion in which America (in the form of Bernhard, a spiritual “golf guru”), then Japan, and finally extraterrestrials in a spaceship all turn up to claim the land down under as their own. Along the way Turner gives us delightfully incoherent dream sequences, bouts of strip miniature golf, some hilarious lampooning of the new-age mentality, and one of my favorite performances by a dog. Incidentally, Bernhard despises this movie and trashes it whenever she gets a chance, but I liked it as well as or better than many of her routines. Music Box, Monday, November 10, 7:00. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Mahjong

Edward Yang’s angriest film (1996) follows various gangsters, hustlers, jet-setters, and western expatriates in contemporary Taipei, focusing in particular on the disappearance of a tycoon who owes $100 million to the local mob and his grown son, who wants to find him. A high-energy mosaic about the way we live, especially during economic boom conditions, with as much emphasis on sexual behavior as on business tensions, this builds to a climax of shocking violence before resolving itself into a poignant love story; the emotional and generic gear changes are part of what’s so exciting and reckless about it. In some ways it’s a loose remake of Yang’s previous feature, A Confucian Confusion, but it succeeds even more in capturing the tenor of our times. (JR)… Read more »

The Rainmaker

Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed this watchable adaptation of the John Grisham courtroom novel, about a hapless young lawyer (Matt Damon) persuaded to take on a huge insurance company, and it’s fairly enjoyable if simpleminded stuff. There’s a subplot about the hero becoming interested in a battered wife (Claire Danes) that isn’t fully integrated with the main story, but the secondary cast is full of flavor (with particularly high marks to Mickey Rourke, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Mary Kay Place, Teresa Wright, and Jon Voight), and Coppola was wise to get Michael Herr to write the hero’s offscreen narrationsomething he’d also done for Coppola in the late 70s on Apocalypse Now. (JR)… Read more »

Child Murders

Notwithstanding the striking, razor-sharp, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, this often-praised 1993 feature by Ildiko Szabo strikes me as being an unintentional parody of the compulsive morbidity so often associated with recent Hungarian art moviesa trait that to my taste only Bela Tarr, Peter Gothar, and a few others have been able to justify as something more than rhetoric. In this depiction of a miserable 12-year-old boy taking care of his sick and alcoholic grandmother, befriending a young, pregnant Gypsy woman, and eventually being driven to murder by the persecutions of a neighbor, there’s a veritable fetishing of suffering unaccompanied by much understanding or depth that the mechanical banality of the music and the disembodied quality of the postsync dialogue only make harder to tolerate. Maybe there’s more going on here than I could find, but the desire to shock seems to go well beyond the urgency of having something to say. (JR)… Read more »

The Man Who Knew Too Little

Bill Murray plays an Iowa video-store clerk visiting his brother (Peter Gallagher) in London; he wanders into a sinister international plot strewn with corpses and dastardly schemes that he mistakes for an audience participation theater show. This is basically a Bob Hope spy farce of the 40s or 50s, decked out with multiple double entendres, only nominally updated, and given a few sparks by Murray’s mugging. It runs out of energy and inventiveness long before it ends. Adapted by Robert Farrar and Howard Franklin from Farrar’s novel Watch That Man and directed by Jon Amiel; with Alfred Molina, Richard Wilson, and Joanne Whalley. (JR)… Read more »

This Time For Keeps

Routinely opulent 1947 Esther Williams musical, made at MGM during a period when opulence was the coin of the realm. Lauritz Melchior, Jimmy Durante, and Xavier Cugat take up (or prolong) some of the slack, and Richard Thorpe directed. (JR)… Read more »