Monthly Archives: December 1997

TV Guise [AS GOOD AS IT GETS]

From the Chicago Reader (December 29, 1997). To tell the the truth, over 17 years later, I’m a little embarrassed about having given this movie four stars. For all my affection for James L. Brooks, in spite of everything (and including his most recent picture, the much-reviled How Do You Know), this is far from being his best work. — J.R.

As Good as It Gets **** Masterpiece

Directed by James L. Brooks

Written by Mark Andrus and Brooks

With Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Jesse James, and Jill.

As a TV illiterate who probably hasn’t watched a sitcom regularly since The Honeymooners, who’s never seen Taxi, Rhoda, Lou Grant, Room 222, or The Tracey Ullman Show, and caught only the final episodeĀ  of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I don’t know much about the world James L. Brooks sprang from as an artist. In fact, apart from several episodes of his two cartoon series, The Simpsons and The Critic, I don’t know his TV work at all. And as someone who regards movie test-marketing as one of the sleaziest, most destructive practices in Hollywood, I’m more than a little skeptical about a writer-director-producer who believes in it so religiously that after the previews of his previous feature, the musical I’ll Do Anything, he recut it so extensively he made it a nonmusical.… Read more »

Wag the Dog

Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss’s chances for reelection. He flies to southern California, engaging a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, reportedly lampooning Robert Evans) to help fake a war in Albania that will make the president shine again. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s script is gleefully hyperbolic without ever straying from its political target–the gulf war is repeatedly cited as the conspirators debate what the American public will swallow. Wag the Dog falters only in coming up with an adequate curtain closer (and in keeping both public response and the president out of frame, which makes the proceedings more theoretical than is necessary). Otherwise this is hilarious, deadly stuff, sparked by the cynical gusto of the two leads as well as the fascinating technical display of how TV “documentary evidence” can be digitally manufactured inside a studio. Barry Levinson directed with a reasonable amount of panache; with Kirsten Dunst, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, and Willie Nelson. Starts next Friday, January 2. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Sweet Hereafter

Adapting a beautiful novel by Russell Banks, Atom Egoyan (Exotica) may finally have bitten off a little more than he can chew, but the power and reach of this undertaking are still formidable. At the tragic center of the story are the deaths of many children in a small town when a school bus spins out of control and sinks into a frozen lake (depicted in an extraordinary single shot that calls to mind a Brueghel landscape) and what this threatens to do to the community, especially after a big-city lawyer (a miscast, albeit effective, Ian Holm) turns up and tries to initiate litigation. Egoyan restructures Banks’s novel (which is narrated by several characters in turn and proceeds chronologically) into the kind of mosaic narrative used in his recent features and in most of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novels (in which several different time frames and narrative lines are intercut and proceed simultaneously). He also adds some material about the Pied Piper, capturing the essence of some parts of the book but simplifying most of the characters and making the mountainous setting more mythical. Virtually all of Egoyan’s features revolve around emotional traumas, but this one seems less obsessive–for good and ill.… Read more »

Touch of Class [TITANIC]

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 1997). — J.R.

Titanic

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Cameron

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, and Suzy Amis.

I suppose there’s something faintly ridiculous about a $200-million movie that argues on behalf of true love over wealth and even bandies about a precious diamond as a central narrative device — like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud — to clinch its point. Yet for all the hokeyness, Titanic kept me absorbed all 194 minutes both times I saw it. It’s nervy as well as limited for writer-director-coproducer James Cameron to reduce a historical event of this weight to a single invented love story, however touching, and then to invest that love story with plot details that range from unlikely to downright stupid. But one clear advantage of paring away the subplots that clog up disaster movies is that it allows one to achieve a certain elemental purity.

This movie tells you a great deal about first class on the ship, a little bit about third class, and nothing at all about second class. According to Walter Lord’s 1955 nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember, which includes a full passenger list, 279 of the 2,223 passengers were in second class, and 112 of them survived.… Read more »

Deceiver

Tim Roth, the disturbed offspring of a well-to-do Charleston family, is a prime suspect in the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger), and two detectives (Chris Penn and Michael Rooker) hope that a series of polygraph interrogations will pin him down. This is a fair-to-middling psychological thriller by the writing-directing team of Jonas and Josh Pate, relatively easy to watch and even easier to forget. Watch for cameos by Ellen Burstyn, Rosanna Arquette, and Mark Damon. (JR)… Read more »

Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen diehards won’t care, but for me this runs a close second to September as his worst feature to datemarginally more bearable only because it’s a comedy and a couple of gags are reasonably funny. Otherwise it’s a cluttered, unstructured Fellini-derived tale of a bitter New York-Jewish autobiographical novelist (played by guess who) reassessing his life and loves while hiring hookers and planning a trip back to his upstate alma mater. Given the limitations of the material, the all-star castincluding Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, and Robin Williamsproves more distracting than edifying. (JR)… Read more »

Good Will Hunting

Goodwill, in fact, is mainly what this muted drama has, along with premises that suggest a therapeutic fairy tale and the warmth of Gus Van Sant’s laid-back direction. Young mathematics genius Will Hunting (cowriter Matt Damon) works as a janitor at MIT, where a math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers him and makes him see a therapist (a subdued Robin Williams). Scripted with Ben Affleck (who plays the hero’s best friend), and assisted by a charismatic performance by Minnie Driver, this is good, solid work that never achieves either the art or poignance of Van Sant’s earlier and more personal projects (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), though it’s clearly superior to something like Dead Poets Society. 126 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tomorrow Never Dies

The 18th James Bond movie features the usual saturation bombardment. There are a few amusing stunts, lots of explosions and one-liners, and a mad news baron (Jonathan Pryce) made up of equal parts Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and Dr. No. But apart from the welcome grace and pluck of Asian action star Michelle Yeohwho all but steals the movie away from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and single-handedly makes this a better wedding of Hong Kong and Hollywood than either Rumble in the Bronx or Face/Offthis film has no personality whatsoever. (As usual, the credits show more imagination than the narrative proper.) With Teri Hatcher, Joe Don Baker, and Ricky Jay. Roger Spottiswoode directed the computer-generated script credited to Bruce Feirstein. (JR)… Read more »

Titanic

For better and for worse, James Cameron’s hokey yet moving $200 million blockbuster (1997) tells you quite a bit about first class, a little about third class, and nothing at all about second class. This is mainly because Titanic, unlike most disaster movies, has virtually no subplots; the whole 194 minutes pivot around a fictional love story on the doomed ship between a rebellious bride-to-be (Kate Winslet) and a penniless artist (Leonardo DiCaprio). The elemental style and broadly defined characters recall D.W. Griffith at times (though there’s no equivalent to either of the Gish sisters), and for a movie set in 1912 this seems entirely appropriate. Some of the invented story is certainly fanciful, and a few details are downright stupid, yet overall what the movie has to say about its eraand, more implicitly, our ownin terms of class rings true. All things considered, Titanic is old-fashioned epic filmmaking that carries a wallop. With Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, David Warner, and Bill Paxton. (JR)… Read more »

Mr. Magoo

If you really hate your kids, pack them off to this slapdash farce, whose only funny moment is the PC disclaimer at the end about the Disney company’s humanist concern for blind people (which even literate toddlers will have trouble understanding anyway). Leslie Nielsen seems a good two feet too tall for the unlamented UPA cartoon character of the 50s (who had a barely seen cartoon feature of his own back in 1964), but the real problems go beyond that. Director Stanley Tong (Supercop, Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan’s First Strike) gets to recapture his Hong Kong action routines only in the abbreviated kickboxing assigned to Kelly Lynch or her stunt double; everything else is torturous formula. Written by Pat Proft and Tom Sherohman; with Malcolm McDowell, Ernie Hudson, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Miguel Ferrer (looking and sounding a great deal like his father Jose). (JR)… Read more »

Amistad

Steven Spielberg’s skillful if stodgy 1997 feature, about the 1841 Supreme Court hearings that determined the fate of African slaves who’d broken free on a Spanish ship near Cuba, recalls some of the better Stanley Kramer productions of the 50s (even if the iconography of noble African males evokes certain Paul Robeson films). There’s some excellent comedy early on involving the mutual incomprehension of Africans and Americans, though this eventually gives way to solemn, ethnocentric mush about one African’s reading of the story of Jesus, demonstrating as usual that sustained subtlety is hardly Spielberg’s forte. The script is credited to David Franzoni, though other hands were involved; it seems to stick reasonably close to the historical record and doesn’t add any romantic subplots. With Anthony Hopkins (able if miscast as John Quincy Adams), Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, and Willie Amakye. 152 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wag The Dog

Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss… Read more »

The Sweet Hereafter

Adapting a beautiful novel by Russell Banks, Atom Egoyan (Exotica) may finally have bitten off more than he can chew, but the power and reach of this undertaking are still formidable. At the tragic center of the story are the deaths of many children in a small town when a school bus spins out of control and sinks into a frozen lake (depicted in an extraordinary single shot that calls to mind a Brueghel landscape) and what this threatens to do to the community, especially after a big-city lawyer (a miscast, albeit effective, Ian Holm) turns up and tries to initiate litigation. Egoyan restructures Banks’s novel (which is narrated by several characters in turn and proceeds chronologically) into a kind of mosaic narrative used in his other features, and one that has potent things to say about communal ties and the repressive machinations of capitalism that can sever them. R, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

From The Terrace

A tolerable (if interminable) piece of mediocrity from 1960, adapted by Ernest Lehman from John O’Hara’s lengthy novel about the rise to power of a young war veteran (Paul Newman) among wealthy Pennsylvanians. Directed by Mark Robson; with Joanne Woodward and Myrna Loy. This was made in ‘Scope, so beware of scanned prints. (JR)… Read more »

A Self Made Hero

Jacques Audiard (See How They Fall) directed this 1996 tale of a young man in France during the closing days of World War II (Mathieu Kassovitz) who fabricates a past for himself as a war hero. Clever, fashionably cynical, and entertaining, this moves along like a cabaret performancefor better and for worse. With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Anouk Grinberg, and Sandrine Kiberlain; Audiard and Alain Le Henry based their screenplay on a novel by Jean-Francois Deniau. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »