From the Chicago Reader (June 29, 1998). — J.R.
It’s strictly a side issue whether mankind will survive colliding with an asteroid the size of Texas; the real question is whether Liv Tyler, who plays Bruce Willis’s daughter, gets to keep her boyfriend (Ben Affleck). Not wishing to spoil the fun — pretty hard to come by anyway in this 1998 blockbuster’s 150 minutes — I won’t tell you the outcome, but I’ll wager you can guess. Basically this is The Dirty Dozen meets When Worlds Collide: a grubby team of oil drillers headed by Willis is dispatched to save the planet by nuking the asteroid from within. Michael Bay, who was more comfortable with the subtleties of The Rock, is director and coproducer, and among the credited and uncredited writers — all of them clearly encouraged to work in their sleep — are Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, Robert Roy Pool, Robert Towne, Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, and Scott Rosenberg. Others in the cast who embarrass themselves and us for their salaries include Billy Bob Thornton, Keith David, Steve Buscemi, Chris Ellis, Will Patton, and Jason Isaacs. (JR)
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Lightly comic agitprop about homophobic bigotry in a small southern townsincere, hokey, and artlessby first-time writer-director Kelli Herd. Various complications ensue when the rumor spreads that something in the drinking water turns people gay. In spite of a couple of able actors (Keri Jo Chapman and Teresa Garrett) as the two leadsestranged wives and best friends who become loversmost of the performances and direction call to mind little theater productions, and the storytelling and sense of character remind me of porn films. I can sympathize with this movie’s reactive essentialism, which seems to imply that straights are as one-dimensional as they seem to think gays are, but I find it hard to stay interested in the reductive sense of human personality that levels everyone in the movie regardless of his or her sexual preference. With Derrick Sanders, Timothy Vahle, and Barbara Lasater. (JR)… Read more »
Based on feedback, I would guess that this article, which first appeared on June 25, 1998, is the most popular piece I’ve ever published in the Chicago Reader. (for further reflections about this piece 13 years later, go here.) Although it’s been featured as a separate item for several years on their site, I noticed that, thanks to some of their recent user-unfriendly retoolings of that site — which makes it much harder to access anything and everything, including this article — my own list of my 100 favorite films at the end of this piece and the AFI’s list of the supposedly greatest 100 films somehow got scrambled together. [Update, 7/25/09: Checking back a day later, this now appears unscrambled.] This is mainly why I’ve decided to reprint the original piece here in Notes, with only a few minor modifications. I revised and expanded this piece still further in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See, where it forms the sixth chapter. (I’m sorry that the English edition of this, which has a much better jacket, has become more scarce.) One of the main additions, on page 93, is a list of the 25 titles on the AFI list that I probably would have included on my own if I hadn’t wanted to create an all-new list for polemical purposes; six of these titles are illustrated at the tail-end of this piece.… Read more »
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s second feature (after Kicking and Screaming) has about as much romantic charm and wit as the first, which is pretty much. Cast in the form of a nostalgic art movie like Jules and Jim, it recounts the obsession of its hero (Eric Stoltz) with the former lovers of his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra), which leads him to spy on one of them, a successful novelist (Chris Eigeman), by adopting the name and identity of a friend (Carlos Jacott) and joining the novelist’s therapy group. Stoltz looks so wholesome that it’s a little hard to believe in his dementia, but the visible pleasure of this cast (also including Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Bridget Fonda, and Peter Bogdanovich) in working together and with Baumbach is part of what makes it so enjoyable. There’s a ton of New York atmosphere, if you like that sort of thing, evoking Woody Allen without the sarcasm. (JR)… Read more »
Not everything works in this no-budget autobiographical romantic comedy by writer-director-actor Christopher Scott Cherot, but just about everything is fresh and unpredictable. A homeless novelist named Lee Plenty (Cherot) is invited by a wealthy college friend named Hav Savage (Chenoa Maxwell) to join her at her mother’s home in Washington for New Year’s Eve; during the weekend, he finds himself sexually approached by her best friend, her recently married half sister, and Hav herself. Quirky throughout, this is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, but it kept me interested and amused. (JR)… Read more »
Jessica Lange plays the title heroine in another highly forgettable piece of set decoration inspired by a 19th-century novelin this case Balzac’s tale of a calculating spinster. At least writers Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr and director Des McAnuff play it mainly for laughs, rather than with the usual strangled piety. Others in the cast include Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, Kelly MacDonald, Elisabeth Shue, and Aden Young. (JR)… Read more »
From the June 5, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Truman Show
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, and Ed Harris.
Undeniably provocative and reasonably entertaining, The Truman Show is one of those high-concept movies whose concept is both clever and dumb. Let’s start with the clever part. A 29-year-old insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives in a seemingly utopian small town named Seahaven on an island off the coast of somewhere like Florida or California, gradually discovers that he’s the unwitting star of a TV show — a show that’s been running 24 hours a day since his birth. Everyone else on the island is an actor or an extra — including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and his mother (Holland Taylor) — and 5,000 hidden cameras are planted all over town to record his every movement. The show has no commercials in the usual sense, subsisting instead on product placements accompanied by advertising patter from Seahaven residents, including Truman’s wife, who extols the virtues of a new gadget she bought at the supermarket or recommends that he try a new brand of cocoa.… Read more »
Through the Olive Trees
The social status of filmmaking among ordinary people, central to Abbas Kiarostami’s wonderful Close-up and Life and Nothing More, is equally pertinent in this entertaining and sometimes beautiful film. Through the Olive Trees (1994) concludes a trilogy begun with Where Is My Friend’s House?, which focused on the adventures of a poor schoolboy in a mountainous region of northern Iran. Life and Nothing More, the second and best film of the three, fictionally re-created Kiarostami and his son’s return to the area, which had recently been devastated by an earthquake, to look for two child actors from the earlier film. Through the Olive Trees is a comedy about the making of a film, mostly emphasizing the persistent efforts of a young actor to woo an actress who won’t even speak to him. Like Kiarostami’s more recent Taste of Cherry, all three films strategically elide certain information about the characters, inviting audiences to fill in the blanks and in this case yielding a mysteriously beautiful and open-ended conclusion. If you’re unfamiliar with Kiarostami–one of our greatest living filmmakers and certainly the greatest in Iran–this is an excellent introduction. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, June 6 and 7.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) thinks he lives in a model island community, but then he discovers that his entire life has been televised without interruption as The Truman Show; his family and friends, along with everyone else in town, are actors and extras, and the island itself is a TV studio. Half-clever and half-dumb, though always interesting and provocative, this 1998 fantasy was written with some wit by Andrew Niccol and directed with some style by Peter Weir. It makes better sense as allegory than as SF premise, expecting you to accept that the viewing public consists of jerks (except for you and me and other media-savvy types) and that the Truman Show creator (Ed Harris, radiating holiness) who services the jerks is a godlike genius. In short, this pretends to be daring while parroting what much of the TV industry already thinks about itself and its audience. But it’s still pretty much fun to watch. With Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, and Holland Taylor. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »
Less a remake of Frederick Knott’s play and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Dial M for Murder than a variation on some of the same materials. This nasty, watchable, but instantly forgettable thriller combines Michael Douglas at his most reptilian with Gwyneth Paltrow in the classy Grace Kelly part, planting the married couple in ultraswank New York settings, throwing in Viggo Mortensen as Paltrow’s downtown lover (a character with no counterpart in the original), and adding twists to keep us from falling asleep. There’s nothing to wake us up either: this is simply efficient, routine storytelling with a high gloss but an undernourished sense of character. Directed by Andrew Davis from a script by Patrick Smith Kelly. (JR)… Read more »
Eight short films in Super-8, two of them premieres and one excerpting a work in progress, by former Chicagoan Mike Williams, who will attend the screening. I’ve previewed four of these films on videoParadise Lost (1990), Losers (1991), The 12 Seconds of Love (1996), and The Crowdand had a pretty good time with them. The first two are contemporary beatnik romps around San Francisco and Chicago; the 40-second 12 Seconds is a lovely depiction of sexual congress between a corkscrew and a lemon; and The Crowd is a brooding meditation on street accidents in Chicago and elsewhere, with explicit nods to the Ray Bradbury story and the King Vidor film carrying the same title. The other films to be shown: The Undeadheads (1990), Another Dead Soldier (1997), Bum (the work in progress), and Rapid Transit. Rounding out the program are two rare short Super-8 films by German experimental filmmaker Maria Von Voss, Fuhrer und Jazztanzer (1974) and Der Leson (1976), and a lot of live music by Katie Belle and several members of her band, the Belle Rangers. ( I say a lot because the program is scheduled to run five hours and the film segments add up to 70-odd minutes.) (JR) Admission is $2 or a donation.… Read more »
An outdoor screening of three independent films by Chicago-area women filmmakers, all made last year: Deborah Stratman’s From Hetty to Nancy, Daniele Wilmouth’s striking and experimental Curtain of Eyes, and Angela Kates’s Mr. McFarlind. (JR)… Read more »
The Paris-based Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani has made about a dozen quirky features to date, and this ambitious 1996 frescoa French-Russian-Italian-Swiss productionis the best of those I’ve seen. Moving back and forth between 16th-century Georgia, Stalinist Georgia, contemporary Georgia, and contemporary Paris, each of which solicits a somewhat different directorial style, the movie might be regarded as a mordant, witty variation on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerancea view of warfare and political corruption over the past four centuries, with the same actors playing different parts in all four periods. (The lead, Amiran Amiranachvil, plays a king in the 16th century, an early-20th-century pickpocket enlisted by communists, and a Paris clochard, for instance.) Keeping his camera at a certain measured distance from his action, Iosseliani’s bleak view of human behavior is complex and amused enough to make this something more than a bitter tract; this picture is much closer to Tati or Bu… Read more »
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Longtime Orson Welles assistant Richard Wilson was a good director in his own right, and this 1960 crime story about the Mafia in New York in 1906, made after his better known Al Capone, shows him at his near best. With Ernest Borgnine, Zohra Lampert, Al Austin, and John Marley. (JR)… Read more »