Monthly Archives: March 1998

City Of Angels

It’s all the more grotesque because of its evident sincerity. This misguided Hollywood remake of Wim Wenders’s 1988 Wings of Desire, said to be the swan song of the late Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel, is about angels in Los Angeles watching over human lives; one of them (Nicolas Cage) falls in love with a heart surgeon (Meg Ryan) and decides to become human. Wenders’s angels were derived from the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke; the only literary reference this film makes is to Hemingway’s mean-spirited memoir A Moveable Feast, which is celebrated here for its sensual descriptions of taste. If you’ve never seen the lovely Wenders film, maybe you’ll be charmed by this low-grade variation, all of whose best qualitiessuch as the airy crane shots poised over city vistas and freewayscan be traced back to the original; otherwise you might run screaming from the theater. (Reportedly the film made more sense before some of the actors decided to improve the script with their own dialogue.) Directed by Brad Silberling (Casper) from a script by Dana Stevens (Blink); with Dennis Franz and Andre Braugher. (JR)… Read more »

Truth is Stronger Than Fiction (THE FINAL INSULT)

Even though the following review for the Chicago Reader, originally published on March 27, 1998, is fairly mixed, it seems worth reviving as a reminder of how neglected significant portions of Charles Burnett’s work continue to be. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing The Final Insult again and reconsidering it.

It’s worth noting that When it Rains is now happily available on DVD, along with Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, even though one has to look for it (its placement isn’t made clear on the jacket), on the two-disc set of Killer of Sheep, which also includes two separate versions of My Brother’s Wedding. —J.R.

The Final Insult

** Worth seeing

Directed by Charles Burnett

With Ayuko Babu and Charles Bracy.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Given the difficulties he had in the 70s and 80s getting his films made and seen, Charles Burnett [see photo at end of article] seemed in danger of becoming the Carl Dreyer of the black independent cinema—the consummate master who makes a film a decade, known only to a small band of film lovers. Seven years passed between Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother’s Wedding (1984), and then another six before To Sleep With Anger (1990), which tried and failed to make a dent in the mainstream, as did The Glass Shield (1994).… Read more »

Chronicle of a Disappearance

Chronicle of a Disappearance

Palestinian independent Elia Suleiman returned to Nazareth after many years in New York to make this 1996 first feature, an intriguing, highly sophisticated, and often very funny combination of fiction, documentary, diary, essay, and home movie. Armed with irony, absurdist humor, and a handsome visual style, Suleiman offers a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of middle-class Palestinian life in Israel and a complex understanding of Arab identity within that world that encompasses both family and friends. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 28, 4:00, and Sunday, March 29, 2:00 and 6:00, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Wide Awake

Reflecting on the death of his beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia), a fifth-grader (Joseph Cross) in a Catholic school experiences a crisis of faith. Though I wouldn’t call this comedy-drama especially memorable, it can at least be lauded for its sincerity. The actorswho also include Denis Leary, Dana Delany, Timothy Reifsynder, and Rosie O’Donnellall do respectable jobs. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. (JR)… Read more »

Automatic Writing

Automatic Writing

Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, a child of Chinese and Australian parents, directed this intriguing and original 1996 film about her Chinese great-great-grandfather. An orphan in 19th-century Hong Kong, he was kidnapped, put to work in a brothel, and taken to San Francisco; there he converted to Christianity, worked as a servant to a Jewish family, and returned to Hong Kong, where he worked for a doctor and eventually became a surgeon. Fleming’s approach to this colorful material is extremely playful and ironic, mixing fiction and documentary as she uses both actors (including Kwok Wing Leung, George Chiang) and herself to recount the story in a highly stylized manner. Fleming will attend the screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, March 20, 8:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warrior

From Written By: The Journal of the Writers Guild of America, West (March 1998, Vol. 2, issue 3).

The first photograph here was taken during the summer of 1987, when I was the director of the Film Studies summer school program at the University of California, Santa Barbara and invited Sam Fuller to serve as our Artist in Residence. –- J.R.

JR with SF samfullerhappy

Many film lovers of my generation were introduced to him in an early party sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s already unruly Pierrot le Fou (1965), playing himself and smoking his signature cigar-a short, wiry firecracker ready to hold forth. Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo what cinema was, he said it was like a battleground: “Love. . .hate. . . action. . .violence. . .death. In a word, emotion.”

By the time the writer-director-legend Samuel Fuller died in Hollywood last October at age 86, his reputation as the last two of these hyphenates was fully in place. Celebrated for his gritty noirs, unglamorous war films, and eccentric westerns, he also turned up in bit parts in everything from The American Friend to 1941. Yet the fact that he’s still better known as a director and as a juicy screen presence than as a writer seriously distorts the meaning of his life and career.Read more »

Ayn Rand: A Sense Of Life

Michael Paxton’s 145-minute documentary portrait of the Russian-born novelist (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and philosopher is absorbing but not entirely trustworthy about what it chooses to include and omit from her life. (Her 14-year affair with her young acolyte and intellectual heir, Nathaniel Brandena relationship that ended in acrimonyis accorded only three and a half minutes.) What this film chooses to concentrate on, however, it handles potently: her lifelong hatred of communism and collectivism, her worship of Hollywood (and early acquaintance with Cecil B. De Mille), her romantic predilections, her careers as screenwriter, playwright, and eclectic guru. Paxton ably incorporates original animation, contemporary interviews with friends and associates, and a great deal of archival material (mainly film clips and footage of Rand speaking). Don’t expect any critical perspectives on the woman, however; this is hagiography all the way. (JR)… Read more »

Wild Things

The plot of the film delivers a number of satisfying twists and turns, claims Columbia Pictures in a press handout for this crime story set in the Florida Everglades. To ensure that audiences can fully enjoy these surprises, we ask that you please not disclose the events and ending. So let me concentrate, rather, on disclosing the philosophy of the movie, which John McNaughton directed from a screenplay by Stephen Peters. What I’m supposed to find satisfying is predicated on the idea that almost everyone in the world is trash. Unfortunately, when one goes along with this premise, who does what and to whom doesn’t matter a whole lot. Maybe the film will keep you amusedand maybe not. Despite the castKevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Theresa Russell, Robert Wagner, and Bill MurrayI found it preposterous. (JR)… Read more »

Love and Death on Long Island

A reclusive, old-fashioned, intellectual novelist and widower living in London (John Hurt) stumbles accidentally into a screening of Hotpants College II at his local multiplex and becomes hopelessly, obsessively enamored of one of its young American stars (Jason Priestley). Fan magazines and the purchase of a VCR fail to satisfy his longings, so he travels to the Long Island town where his beloved resides and plots to encounter him in the flesh. This perfectly realized, beautifully acted, sweetly hilarious 1997 first feature by English writer-director Richard Kwietniowski, adroitly adapted from Gilbert Adair’s short novel of the same name (a comic variation on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”), is a witty, canny meditation on the power of pop culture in general and the rationalizations of cinephilia and film criticism in particular. What makes it perhaps even better than Adair’s clever novel, which is somewhat limited by its first-person narration, is the beautiful balance of humane sympathies Kwietniowski achieves; at no point does the foolishness or vanity of either character wipe out our sense of his dignity, and Fiona Loewi is no less touching as the movie star’s girlfriend. A “small” film only in appearance, this is as solid and confident as any first feature I’ve seen this year.… Read more »

The Leading Man

Maybe I’m just a sucker for backstage stories about theater people as well as for Thandie Newton (Flirting, Gridlock’d), but this English picture kept me absorbed, happy, and occasionally amused despite its dubious details. Lambert Wilson plays a celebrated London playwright having an affair with an emerging actress (Newton) who’s cast in his latest play. As he tries (with little success) to cope with the rage of his wife (Anna Galiena) and the ambivalence of his three children, the play’s lead actor (Jon Bon Jovi), a notorious womanizer from the States, offers to seduce the neglected wife. Eventually the playwright is brought face-to-face with his double standard. The dubious details include the play itselfwhich seems awful, but apparently isn’t supposed to beand some trumped-up melodramatics toward the end. The uneven John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Wide Sargasso Sea, Sirens) directed from a screenplay by his sister Virginia; with Barry Humphries and David Warner. (JR)… Read more »

The Man In The Iron Mask

The only other adaptations I’ve seen of the Alexandre Dumas novel (which I haven’t read) are the Classics Illustrated comic book and the 1939 James Whale potboiler, both of which I prefer to this vulgar and overwrought 1998 free-for-all, which makes you wait interminably for the story’s central narrative premise. (The Whale version spills the beans right away.) Written and directed by Randall Wallace (best known as the screenwriter of Braveheart), this starts off as a Three Musketeers sequel, trusting that its hefty cast and fart jokes will keep you interested. But to be fair, the story is close to foolproof once it finally gets going. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, Anne Parillaud, and Judith Godreche. 132 min. (JR)… Read more »

Primary Colors

I’ve only skimmed the best-selling novel that this is based on, so I can’t say precisely how much Elaine May’s screenplayproduced and directed by Mike Nicholstakes from it. But something resembling a Brechtian comedy about the Clintons and scandal-ridden politics in general has emerged from the adaptationsomething witty, thoughtful, timely, grandly entertaining, and ultimately very serious about the way presidential campaigns are run. It’s no surprise to learn that outside the movie the filmmakers support the Clintons over their enemies; what is surprising for a mainstream movie is that final moral judgments are basically left up to the viewer. (By comparison, Wag the Dog seems like a bit of flip arrogance.) John Travolta is wonderful as Clinton stand-in Jack Stanton, a southern governor running for president, and Emma Thompson as his wife is only a shade less convincing; Adrian Lester adeptly plays the idealistic black political strategist who goes to work for them and leads us into their world. Matching up the others with their real-life (and sometimes not-so-real-life) counterparts is part of the game this movie invites one to play, but whether one recognizes their characters or not, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Larry Hagman give May’s dialogue all the color and nuance it deserves.… Read more »

U.s. Marshals

Not so much a sequel to The Fugitive as a lazy spin-off that imitates only what was boring and artificially frenetic about that earlier thriller; the little that kept it interestingTommy Lee Jones’s Oscar-winning inflections, better-than-average directionis nowhere in evidence. Once again Jones plays a marshal bent on capturing a wrongly accused fugitive from justice (Wesley Snipes this time around), though why we’re supposed to be interested in or diverted by this fascist bully terrorizing whole sections of Chicago and New York in order to track down his innocent prey escapes me entirely; the character is equally dull as hero and villain, and it’s not clear much of the time which he’s supposed to be. The usually interesting Robert Downey Jr. is miscast as another government agent, and Irene Jacob as Snipes’s lover isn’t around long enough to ameliorate the motion sickness. Written (very badly) by John Pogue and directed (if that’s the word) by Stuart Baird; with Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck, and Tom Wood (deputy marshals back from The Fugitive), LaTanya Richardson, and Kate Nelligan. (JR)… Read more »

Hush

Playing a widow devoted to the grown son (Johnathon Schaech) who brings his fiancee (Gwyneth Paltrow) back to his family’s Kentucky estate, Jessica Lange establishes a spark of interest in this psychological thriller with her giggly demonic performance. But the film never adds up to anything more than an elaborate tease; the writing and directing of Jonathan Darby, a British TV veteran and Hollywood executive, make the proceedings neither believable nor compelling, so what might have been another Rosemary’s Baby isn’t even a halfway decent genre exercise. With Nina Foch, Debi Mazar, and Hal Holbrook; cowritten by Jane Rusconi. (JR)… Read more »