Yearly Archives: 1997

As Good As It Gets

The fourth and best feature of writer-director-producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, I’ll Do Anything) focuses on a dysfunctional, obsessive-compulsive novelist in Greenwich Village (Jack Nicholson), the gay painter who lives next door (Greg Kinnear), and a waitress and single parent (Helen Hunt) who works nearby but lives in Brooklynall of whom get entangled through a number of personal catastrophes. Whether or not these characters add up to coherent individuals, what Brooks manages to do with them as they struggle mightily to connect with one another is funny, painful, beautiful, and basically truthfula triumph for everyone involved. Mark Andrus wrote the original story and collaborated on the script; with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Shirley Knight. (JR)… Read more »

Four Corners

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

four-corners

The ninth feature of experimental filmmaker James Benning (11 x 14, One Way Boogie Woogie, Landscape Suicide, Deseret) is one of his most ambitious and powerful. Four Corners takes as its jumping-off point the famous tourist spot where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, but as a complex meditation on landscape, history, and painting, its subject is really the entire country (one of the longest passages deals with Milwaukee, where Benning grew up). The film examines four paintings by very dissimilar artists (Monet, Jasper Johns, a black man from Alabama, and a first-century Native American); presents biographical sketches of each painter; explores migration history, ethnic displacement, and conflicts in particular areas of Milwaukee or Four Corners; includes 13 fixed (and beautifully composed) shots of each area; and records two pieces of ethnic music (by a Navajo band and a prerap Harlem group). But Benning convinces us that nearly all these things are part of the same story, a politically potent one that brims with a sense of everyday life. (JR)

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Circuit Carole

Laurence Cote (Up Down Fragile, Les voleurs) plays the daughter of Bulle Ogier (L’amour fou, Irma Vep); both live in a northern suburb of Paris in this 1995 first feature by Emmanuelle Cuau. I sampled this a couple of years ago and liked what I saw; given the distinction of the two actresses involved, it should be well worth seeing. (JR)… Read more »

Full Speed

Directed by Gael Morel, the young lead of Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds (1996), this is a French feature about the sex lives of several 20-year-olds, gay as well as straight. I only stuck around for the first half-hour or so when I sampled this at Cannes last year and I wasn’t sorry to leave, but maybe I missed something. (JR)… Read more »

Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Kirby Dick’s 1996 documentary about performance artist and writer Bob Flanaganborn with cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that made pain a constant factor in his lifechronicles his masochism, graphically illustrated in his performance pieces, as a way he coped therapeutically with his condition. The film also deals at length with Sheree Rose, who became Flanagan’s dominatrix, companion, and artistic collaborator over the last 15 years of his life, drawing some of its material from her own videotapes as well as Dick’s film footage. What emerges is perhaps the first in-depth look on film at a long-term sadomasochistic relationship, though one might argue that the nature of Rose’s investment is often ambiguous. Overall, this is serious, powerful, and provocative stuff. I can’t recall a film that compelled me to look away from the screen more often. (JR)… Read more »

A Confucian Confusion

Edward Yang’s ambitious and satiric 1994 Taiwanese feature, set over a couple of frenetic days in Taipei, deals with some of the effects of capitalism on personal relationships, weaving a web of romantic, sexual, and professional intrigues among an energetic businesswoman, her reckless fiance, a TV talk-show hostess, an alienated novelist, an avant-garde playwright, and others. As the title suggests, the collision between ancient Chinese beliefs and current economic trends creates a certain sense of vertigo, and this dense comic drama catches the feeling precisely. (JR)… Read more »

Schizopolis

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

schizopolis-mirror

Writer-director Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath) tries his hand at outrageous screwball comedy, with very mixed results. Playing the lead part himself and shooting with a cast of unknowns in Louisiana, where he grew up, he proceeds largely by peppering his dialogue with various non sequiturs and stretches of nonsense (pacifist cottage . . . Belgian disregard . . . nose army . . . Vienna dog is one fair sample) and bad puns (I may vote Republican, says a dentist, but I’m a firm believer in gum control) and throwing in irreverent asides (No fish was harmed during the making of this film, reads an opening title, and one sign posted to a tree reads, Idea missing). Given the audacity, it would be a pleasure to report that the results are hilarious, but most of it isn’t even funny, and the sense of anything goes hangs heavy over the film as it develops. An authentic curiosity, but proceed at your own risk. (JR)

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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

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

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

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

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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