Monthly Archives: January 1998

Divine Inspiration (THE APOSTLE & KUNDUN)

From the January 30, 1998 Chicago Reader. Since I barely remember Kundun today, I’m pretty sure I must have overrated it, at least in relation to The Apostle (which I remember far better today, even in its truncated version). –J.R.

The Apostle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by

Robert Duvall

With Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Walter Goggins, Rick Dial, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Kundun

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Melissa Mathison

With Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tencho Gyalpo, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Geshi Yeshi Gyatso, and Robert Lin.

For all their obvious differences, both Kundun and The Apostle are spiritual but nonreligious movies about religious leaders, suffused with a perpetual sense of mystery and driven by an abiding curiosity that provokes our own curiosity as well. As a commercial property, each film amounts to an act of defiance, judging by their critical reception so far. Many mainstream critics have stepped out of Kundun asking, “What could Scorsese have been thinking of?,” and some have come out of The Apostle complaining that it’s basically an ego trip for its writer-director-star.

Both reactions perversely miss the point, telling us more about stereotypical commercial expectations in general than about either project in particular.… Read more »

Kundun

Kundun

Recounting the life of the 14th Dalai Lama prior to his departure from Tibet, this highly uncharacteristic feature by Martin Scorsese is his best since The King of Comedy, but you can’t profitably approach it expecting either the violence or the stylistic punchiness of something like GoodFellas. Scripted by Melissa Mathison (in close consultation with the Dalai Lama and his family) and cast almost exclusively with Tibetan exiles, this nonreligious movie about a religious leader is beautiful, abstract, charged with mystery, but never pretentious. Far from dictating a position on the Dalai Lama, the film doesn’t even define a particular point at which the spoiled toddler is transformed into a holy man; a good deal of the historical, political, and religious context is implied rather than explained, and most of the major events occur offscreen. Despite the somewhat questionable wallpaper score by Philip Glass, Scorsese’s delicate, inquisitive style has an inevitability and a rightness all its own. Gardens, Lake, Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Jour de fete

Jour de fete

Jacques Tati’s first feature, a euphoric comedy set in a sleepy village, was meant to be the first French feature in color; it was shot in 1947 using two cameras, one color and one black-and-white. But the new Thomson-Color process failed to yield results that could be printed, so in 1949 the film was released in black and white. Fifteen years later Tati released a recut version in which a few details were colored by means of stencils, the version generally available ever since–at least until Tati’s daughter Sophie, a professional film editor, and film technician Francois Ede decided to restore the original color in 1994. Their meticulous work took well over a year, and what emerges is truly precious: a color print that looks not like the films of 1947 but like 1947 itself. As in all of Tati’s features, the plot is minimal: during Bastille Day festivities, Francois (Tati), the local postman, encounters a newsreel about streamlined postal delivery in America and attempts to clean up his act accordingly. But the exquisite charm of this masterpiece has less to do with individual gags (funny though many of them are) than with Tati’s portrait of a highly interactive French village after the war–a view of paradise suffused with affection and poetry.… Read more »

Desperate Measures

The desperate measures in question are those taken by a San Francisco police officer (Andy Garcia) hoping to save his little boy’s life with a bone-marrow transplant. After discovering that the only available donor is a mass murderer (Michael Keaton) held under maximum security, he contrives to strike a deal, but it isn’t long before the killer gets loose in the hospital. Early on, Keaton manages to appear fairly creepy while settling into a Hannibal Lecter mode; then the formulaic nonsense escalates, and he along with everyone else is reduced to going through the usual motions. Henry Bean, Neal Jiminez, and David Klass are the credited screenwriters and Barbet Schroeder directed; with Marcia Gay Harden and Joseph Cross. (JR)… Read more »

Deep Rising

The generic elements in this horror thriller from Disney are all quite familiar: jewel thieves, luxury liner, a South China Sea monster that seems conceived as a deep-sea equivalent to Alien’s. But writer-director Stephen Sommers (Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book) is so efficient in placing and executing his cliches that he gives you a chilling run for your money. The monster itself, designed by the estimable Rob Bottin, makes a belated appearance, but there’s plenty of well-timed suspense in the meantime, and Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Wes Studi, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Anthony Heald make up a highly serviceable cast. Predictably overextended, this is a creepy jaunt that occasionally wears one out but never flags. (JR)… Read more »

Great Expectations

A reductio ad absurdum of the recent trend of idea-starved producers to plunder 19th-century English fictiona movement that to my mind has justified itself only with Clueless, and in this case makes Charles Dickens look like a weak second cousin to John Grisham. In fact, so little of the novel is dealt with in this updated adaptation, and so much of that little is mauled, that it might have made more sense to do a remake of Youngblood Hawke, the sort of wet dream this movie is really craving to approximate. Ethan Hawke plays a young gulf-coast artist (formerly known as Pip) lured to the Big City, Gwyneth Paltrow plays cruel Estella (the only character allowed to keep the same name), and Anne Bancroft can’t be blamed for the incoherent version of Miss Havisham assigned to her by Mitch Glazer’s stupid script (though perhaps Robert De Niro, playing the convict, can be blamed for reminding us of Cape Fear). A horrendous effort all around, though a couple of the locationsnotably a Venetian Gothic mansion on Sarasota Bayare suggestive. Alfonso Cuaron, who did a far better job with A Little Princess, directed. (JR)… Read more »

Underground

Though slightly trimmed by director-writer Emir Kusturica for American consumption, this riotous 167-minute satirical and farcical allegory about the former Yugoslavia from World War II to the postcommunist present is still marvelously excessive. The outrageous plot involves a couple of anti-Nazi arms dealers and gold traffickers who gain a reputation as communist heroes. One of them (Miki Manojlovic) installs a group of refugees in his grandfather’s cellar, and on the pretext that the war is still raging upstairs he gets them to manufacture arms and other black-market items until the 60s, meanwhile seducing the actress (Mirjana Jokovic) that his best friend (Lazar Ristovski) hoped to marry. Loosely based on a play by cowriter Dusan Kovacevic, this sarcastic, carnivalesque epic won the 1995 Palme d’Or at Cannes and has been at the center of a furious controversy ever since for what’s been called its pro-Serbian stance. (Kusturica himself is a Bosnian Muslim.) However one chooses to take its jaundiced view of history, it’s probably the best film to date by the talented Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream), a triumph of mise en scene mated to a comic vision that keeps topping its own hyperbole. In German and Serbo-Croatian with subtitles.… Read more »

Oscar And Lucinda

This quirky and watchable but disappointingly overproduced and undernourished period epic from Gillian Armstrong, set mainly in early colonial Australia, is adapted from Peter Carey’s novel about the singular bond between an English minister (Ralph Fiennes) and the owner of a Sydney glassworks (Cate Blanchett), both of whom have a passion for gambling. One reason why it disappoints is that it comes across as more the work of screenwriter Laura Jones (An Angel at My Table, The Portrait of a Lady, A Thousand Acres), who’s lately been specializing in high-minded literary adaptations, than of Armstrong, who tends to do better and more nuanced work with more intimate and domestic material (e.g., The Last Days of Chez Nous, Little Women). With Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, and Richard Roxburgh. (JR)… Read more »

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown

Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch for his third feature, Quentin Tarantino puts together a fairly intricate and relatively uninvolving money-smuggling plot, but his cast is so good that you probably won’t feel cheated unless you’re hoping for something as show-offy as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. A flight attendant (70s blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, agreeably treated here like a goddess) gets caught smuggling gun money for an arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson in his prime) and has to work out her loyalties to him, her bail bondsman (Robert Forster, agreeably treated like a noir axiom), the law (including Michael Keaton), and her own interests. Robert De Niro does a fine character part, and Bridget Fonda is very sexy. Biograph, Burnham Plaza, Chatham 14, Esquire, Ford City, Gardens, Hyde Park, Lake, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, 62nd & Western.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Afterglow

Writer-director Alan Rudolph has been remaking his own romantic comedy-dramas for so long now that even when he gives us two couples instead of one or substitutes Montreal for Seattleboth of which he does herethe film still comes out feeling the same. Working with actors as likable as Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, he makes us a bit more tolerant of Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller (whose parts are much less nuanced) and oscillates between two cases of marital discord and amorous yearning with a fair amount of grace. For genuine freshness, however, go back to Remember My Name and Choose Me, or check them out for the first time. (JR)… Read more »

Wonders of the World [The Ten Best Films of 1997]

From the Chicago Reader (January 9, 1998). — J.R.

Do movies come from the tooth fairy? When you consider the way that they’re often treated in this culture — in particular, what films are made available and are therefore considered “important” — the working hypothesis appears to be that movies magically appear and disappear. The general idea is that the designated tooth fairies of product flow — producers, directors, distributors, exhibitors, and critics — make things happen and the only thing viewers are supposed to do is show up for the movie, rent the video, or decide to do neither.

Most viewers understandably don’t want to be bothered with the machinations that determine which movies turn up and which don’t. To tell the truth, most critics don’t want to be bothered with these matters either. But sustaining such innocence may involve too high a price. Readers who complain that 1997 was a mediocre year for movies are probably counting only the multiplex entries, only one of which made it onto my ten-best list — though why anyone would eliminate everything else in a city like Chicago remains a mystery, perhaps explainable by saturation advertising, mass-media complicity in making everything but multiplex movies look unimportant, and the supposed inconvenient locations of some theaters.… Read more »

East Side Story

East Side Story

The words “communist musical” may call to mind tractors and factories–both of which are certainly in evidence here–but this fascinating and enjoyable documentary by Romanian-born filmmaker Dana Ranga and American-born independent Andrew Horn presents the singular genre as a conflict between capitalist glitz and socialist poetry, revealing both the Marxists’ tragicomic efforts to beat the West at its own game and the homegrown folksiness of their efforts. Reportedly only 40-odd musical features were produced in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and Romania prior to the collapse of communism, and roughly half of them are excerpted here. Ranga and Horn interview writers, directors, stars, and ordinary viewers of communist musicals, as well as one prestigious film historian (Maya Turorskaya, best known here for her book on Andrei Tarkovsky). The selection of clips isn’t everything it might have been–I regret the absence of any examples by Alexander Medvedkin, some of which are glimpsed in Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, and eastern European critics have cited other omissions. But Ranga and Horn’s insights into communist film production and their story of how the communist musical triumphed or withered in its various settings offer plenty of food for thought.… Read more »

Working for the New York Film Festival

I no longer recall who asked me to write this or why, but I estimate that I must have written it in late 1997 or early 1998, and probably for some foreign publication. I’m happy to see that much of what I wrote, especially about the Times, is now out of date.  — J.R.

The New York Film festival is held every fall, usually in late September and early October. Unlike every other major film festival that comes to mind, it features relatively few programs, less than thirty — a concentration that allows the festival to give more of its attention to each film it shows than many others do. (As a rule, every feature is accorded a press conference, and public dialogues with the filmmaker usually follow each screening.) This often means that many of the foreign and independent films that show at the festival have a more substantial commercial launching than most of those that don’t. (It’s different for Hollywood films, which already have enormous promotional budgets at their disposal. In fact, most mainstream American releases aren’t even submitted, in part because the studios are afraid that a New York Film Festival showing might handicap a movie with the stigma of “art film”.)

The pre-eminence of the New York Film festival in the U.S.… Read more »

For Ever Mozart

Jean-Luc Godard takes on the Bosnian war in this 1997 French-Swiss production, broken into four segments: Theater, You Don… Read more »

Divided Heaven

Konrad Wolf’s 1964 East German feature was reportedly influenced by Hiroshima, mon amour in both its form and its juxtaposition of a female search for identity with an important historical eventin this case the building of the Berlin Wall. Criticized prior to its release for being too experimental, the film went on to become a popular and critical success, though it’s seldom screened in these parts. In German with subtitles; the running time is about 110 minutes. (JR)… Read more »