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

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

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.

Multinational Pest Control [STARSHIP TROOPERS]

From the Chicago Reader (November 21, 1997). I tend to respect Verhoeven more nowadays than I did back then. — J.R.

Starship Troopers

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Ed Neumeier

With Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Seth Gilliam, and Patrick Muldoon.

When did American action blockbusters stop being American? Sometime in the last two decades, in between the genocidal adventures of George Lucas’s Star Wars and those of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, the national pedigree disappeared. True, Starship Troopers is a simplified, watered-down version of Robert A. Heinlein’s all-American novel, and it’s consciously modeled on Hollywood World War II features (as was much of Star Wars); it even boasts an “all-American” cast that could have sprung full-blown from a camp classic of Aryan physiognomy like Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000. But the only state it can be said to truly reflect or honor is one of drifting statelessness. If the alien bugs that populate Verhoeven’s movie wanted to learn what American life and culture was like in 1977, Star Wars would have served as a useful and appropriate object of study; but if they wanted to know what American — or even global — life was like in 1997, Starship Troopers would tell them zip.… Read more »

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 »

The Power of Suggestion (FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL)

From the Chicago Reader (November 14, 1997). –J.R.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Errol Morris

With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks.

To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest…that is the dream. –Stéphane Mallarmé

If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea of what poetry should be: an obscure object shaped and defined in successive increments by the reader’s perception and imagination.

Four men are interviewed separately in Morris’s film — a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) — and they recount the origins as well as some of the development of their passion for their work. Who they are apart from their work almost never comes up.… 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

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

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It All Adds Up [FOUR CORNERS]

From the Chicago Reader (December 12, 1997). — J.R.

Four Corners

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Benning.

I’ve been brooding a lot lately about the way in which many of the best movies around have been ravaged by “narrative correctness.” This is the notion fostered by producers, distributors, and critics — often collaborating as script doctors and always deeply invested in hackwork — that there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways of telling stories in movies. And woe to the filmmaker who steps out of line. Much as “political correctness” can point to a displaced political impotence — a desire to control language and representation that sets in after one despairs of changing the political conditions of power — “narrative correctness” has more to do with what supposedly makes a movie commercial than with what makes it interesting, artful, or innovative. Invariably narrative correctness means identifying with the people who pay for the pictures rather than with the people who make them.

Last year we had reviewers stomping on Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy and Tim Burton in Mars Attacks! for daring to move beyond their more lucrative formulas to try something different, though their crimes were crimes of subject and tone rather than of storytelling.… Read more »

Exiles in Modernity

From the Chicago Reader (November 7, 1997). Taipei Story is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center today at 5 pm. — J.R.

The Films of Edward Yang

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Taiwan is somehow within the world system as its citizens are in their city boxes: prosperity and constriction all at once; the loss of nature….What is grand and exhilarating, light itself, the hours of the day, is nonetheless here embedded in the routine of the city and locked into the pores of its stone or smeared on its glass: light also being postmodern, and a mere adjunct to the making of reproducible images.

– Fredric Jameson, “Remapping Taipei,” in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System

These people have so much money stuffed up their ass it’s beyond belief! You know, in ten years this place [Taipei] will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history–the 19th century was the glorious age of imperialism, right? Just wait till you see the 21st century… — English character in Edward Yang’s Mahjong

The bombs we plant in each other are ticking away.Read more »

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

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

Taipei Story

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

taipei-story

A turning point in the history of Taiwanese cinema, Edward Yang’s 1985 masterpiece suggests a rough parallel with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in relation to Iranian cinema by virtue of featuring the other key Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien, in a leading role, much as Mohsen Makhmalbaf is featured in Kiarostami’s film. Hou, who also collaborated on the script, plays an alienated businessman working for a textile manufacturer who was an ace baseball player in his youth; when his girlfriend (pop star Tsai Chin) loses her job at a computer firm, their relationship begins to crumble. But this couple’s malaise is only part of a multifaceted sense of confusion and despair that affects three generations of Taipei residents during a period of economic boom, and Yang’s mastery in weaving together all his characters and subplots against a glittering urban landscape anticipates the major themes of his subsequent works. Essential viewing. (JR)

taipei-story2Read more »

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 »