Yearly Archives: 1998

Hack Job [The PSYCHO remake]

There are few films of the past decade that have irritated me quite as much as Van Sant’s idiotic remake of Psycho, and in some ways I was irritated even more by the rationalizations some cinephiles came up with in their tortured efforts to justify it. I tried my best to behave like a gentleman towards Lisa Alspector, the Reader film reviewer whose capsule sparked my longer review in the December 25, 1998 issue, but I don’t know whether or not I succeeded. — J.R.

Psycho

Rating — Worthless

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Joseph Stefano

With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, Ann Haney, and Chad Everett.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Psycho has never been one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures. The first time I saw it, during its initial release in 1960, I’d already read the Robert Bloch novel it’s based on, a fairly routine horror thriller, so the surprise ending was anything but surprising. I saw the movie back-to-back with Let’s Make Love, which I liked a lot more. Yves Montand spoke English awkwardly, but Marilyn Monroe was irresistible — for practically the only time in her late career, she played a character who was smart and feisty.… Read more »

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject, Thom Andersen’s remarkable and sadly neglected hour-long documentary (1974) adroitly combines biography, history, film theory, and philosophical reflection. Muybridge’s photographic studies of animal locomotion in the 1870s were a major forerunner of movies; even more interesting are his subsequent studies of diverse people, photographed against neutral backgrounds. Andersen’s perspectives on Muybridge are multifaceted and often surprising (characteristically, the film’s opening quotation is from Mao), and he presents Muybridge’s photographic sequences in various ways to spell out the many meanings of this fascinating precinematic work. Dean Stockwell narrates. On the same program, a 1927 Pathé documentary short in color, Hawaii. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St., Monday, January 4, 7:00, 773-702-8575.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Thin Red Line

There’s less sense of period here and more feeling for terrain than in any other World War II movie that comes to mind. Terrence Malick’s strongest suits in his two previous features, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)a painterly sense of composition and a bold and original use of offscreen narrationare enhanced here, first by a successful wedding of ecology and narrative (which never quite happened in Days of Heaven) and second by the notion of a collective hero, which permits the internal monologues of many characters in turn. I haven’t read the James Jones novel this is based on, which some feel is his best, but Malick clearly is distancing the material philosophically and poetically, muting the drama periodically and turning it into reverie. This may have its occasional dull stretches, but in contrast to Saving Private Ryan it’s the work of a grown-up with something to say about the meaning and consequences of war. The fine cast includes Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and, in tiny parts, John Travolta and George Clooney. 170 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hurlyburly

My idea of hell is to be stuck in a David Rabe play, but this stagy adaptation of one that’s especially repulsive, glib, and misogynist (1998)about pals adrift in the world of Hollywood hype, and running a full two hoursis made minimally bearable by its all-star cast: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, Robin Wright Penn, and Anna Paquin. The endless male-bonding dialogues are directed (by Anthony Drazan) as if the woman trashing were good clean fun. At least Spacey has the wit to suggest the homoeroticism that hovers over the proceedings; everyone else seems bent on denying it. (JR)… Read more »

Two Movies for the Price of None [James Benning's UTOPIA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.

Utopia title

Utopia

Rating *** A must see

Directed by James Benning

what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks.… Read more »

A Short Film About Love

A remarkable Polish feature, expanded by Krzysztof Kieslowski from an episode in his Decalogue, in which each segment illustrates one of the Ten Commandments; the complete series is one of the key works in contemporary world cinema. A Short Film About Love (1988), located centrally in the housing complex that recurrently appears throughout The Decalogue, is about the voyeuristic relationship between a troubled 19-year-old postal worker and a woman he spies on every night through his telescopea relationship that becomes more complex and takes on certain overtones recalling Rear Window once the woman becomes aware of his gaze and eventually decides to seduce him. In Polish with subtitles. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Short Film About Killing

A remarkable Polish feature, expanded by Krzysztof Kieslowski from an episode in his Decalogue, in which each segment illustrates one of the Ten Commandments; the complete series is one of the key works in contemporary world cinema. A Short Film About Killing (1987) might be called terminally Polish in its bleak handling of a brutal murder and the public execution of the murderer; winner of the jury prize at Cannes, it’s possibly the most powerful movie ever made about the death penalty. In Polish with subtitles. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject, Thom Andersen’s remarkable and sadly neglected hour-long documentary (1974) adroitly combines biography, history, film theory, and philosophical reflection. Muybridge’s photographic studies of animal locomotion in the 1870s were a major forerunner of movies; even more interesting are his subsequent studies of diverse people, photographed against neutral backgrounds. Andersen’s perspectives on Muybridge are multifaceted and often surprising (characteristically, the film’s opening quotation is from Mao), and he presents Muybridge’s photographic sequences in various ways to spell out the many meanings of this fascinating precinematic work. Dean Stockwell narrates. (JR)… Read more »

Central Station

An embittered middle-aged woman (Fernanda Montenegro) who lives alone in Rio de Janeiro and works in the central railway station writing letters for the illiterate poor (whom she generally despises) gets a new lease on life when she meets a nine-year-old boy whose mother has been run over by a bus. It’s difficult to write or even think about such a movie without falling into sentimental cliches, and that gives me pausethough this 1998 film held my interest for two hours, even taking on an epic feel when it turns into a road movie. It’s not bad by any means, but it also happens to resemble a lot of other movies. Walter Salles directed with a good sense of wide-screen open spaces. In Portuguese with subtitles. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

Rio Lobo

Howard Hawks’s last feature, released in 1970. If it were better and more substantial, one might call it his King Learan expression of rage at the frustrations and humiliations of agingrather than the lighthearted western it’s supposed to be. But while no Hawks movie can be considered a total loss, this reductive replay of Rio Bravo and El Dorado is too peevish to qualify as tragic, and only occasionally funny; the fact that its best action sequence, the first, was directed by the second unit is emblematic of Hawks’s relative lack of engagement with the material. The best thing about this effort is its likable cast, headed by John Wayne and including Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O’Neill, Jack Elam, and Chris Mitchum. (JR)… Read more »

The Sentinel

A medical intern (Emmanuel Salinger), the son of a deceased French diplomat in Germany, is en route to Paris when he suddenly comes into possession of a decapitated head and is drawn into a world of espionage. A disturbing commentary on the aftermath of the cold war, this 1992 first feature by Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument) has already won a cult following with its casual portraiture of a yuppie milieu, its fascinating mystery story, and its paranoid but morally concerned indictment of Europe in the early 90s. Oddly, the Paris where most of this unfolds is rather lackluster, but Desplechin has a vivid sense of character, and the cast is pretty strong. With Thibault de Montalembert, Marianne Denicourt, Jean-Louis Richard, and Valerie Dreville; Salinger contributed to the screenplay. (JR)… Read more »

Gods And Monsters

I’m too big a fan of director James Whale (1896-1957) to take a film about him lightly, and I’m afraid this speculative 1998 movie about his last days won’t do. Yes, the man was gay, and Ian McKellen plays him with wit and flair, but reducing Whale to his gayness, which this quaint piece of cheese periodically does, robs us of too much. Like the other highlighted aspects of his character, career, and pastworking-class childhood, World War I, his Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, all presented in crude semaphorethis boils everything down to a few movie-familiar rudiments and ignores the rest; any five minutes of Whale’s The Great Garrick or The Old Dark House will tell you more about him, and certainly more of value, than all of this feature. Instead the film mainly replays Death in Venice and Sunset Boulevard, without either Wilder’s craft or the sensitivity of, for instance, Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island. (There’s also a bitchy party supposedly given by George Cukor where a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor turns up.) The obligatory hunk is playednot very convincinglyby Brendan Fraser, though an unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave gives a more interesting performance as the obligatory German maid.… Read more »

Vietnam: Long Time Coming

Essential viewing. This documentary about a group of American and Vietnamese war veterans, many of them disabled, bicycling 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is many things at onceact of witness, multicultural exchange, sports documentary, investigative journalism, and a mourning for the devastation of war. Ultimately it may be too many things to yield a cumulative effect, yet its scenes of former soldiers struggling with the meaning of the war are more moving than anything I’ve seen on the subject since Winter Soldier (a wartime agitprop film in which American veterans confessed their war crimes). The corporate sponsorship of the bicycle marathon adds many ironic layers, but the emotional encounters it permitted seem more important than anything else I’ve seen about our involvement in Vietnam. Coproduced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and directed by Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn, and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams). 130 min. (JR)… Read more »

Divorce Iranian Style

Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini directed this 1998 documentary about divorce in Iran, where a man is free to leave his wife but a woman needs either her husband… Read more »

Velvet Goldmine

Conceptual to a fault, writer-director Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe) realizes one of his oldest and most cherished projectsa celebration of the glam-rock era and the bisexuality it turned into an opulent circuswith wit, glitter, and energy, but with such a scant sense of character or period that it leaves one feeling relatively empty as soon as it’s over. Apart from its coy prologue (positing Oscar Wilde as the grand precursor to glam) and its cumbersome borrowings from the narrative structure of Citizen Kane, this 1998 film offers enough entertaining surface, snappy montage, and musical theater to keep one absorbed, but little of the tantalizing mystery that made Safe such an enduring experience. Executive producer Michael Stipe had a hand in the sound track, which mixes vintage recordings with new material performed by Mike Watt, Bernard Butler, Ron Asheton of the Stooges, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley. With Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Eddie Izzard, and Toni Collette. (JR)… Read more »