A painfully unfunny period farce (1998) by writer-director-coproducer-costar Stanley Tucci (Big Night), though people who laugh at just about anything might be amused. In the 30s, two unemployed actors (Tucci and Oliver Platt) wind up on a luxury cruise, and the various complications call to mind Hope and Crosby fleeing from various Paramount back-lot villains. The secondary cast runs from Elizabeth Bracco, Steve Buscemi, and Alfred Molina to Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott, and Lili Taylornot to mention a cameo by Woody Allenand the ambience is intricately labored, stridently energetic, and about as familiar as yesterday’s toast. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: September 1998
A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries
This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In “Billy,” the first of the film’s three sections, an expatriate novelist in Paris (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Barbara Hershey) adopt a six-year-old French boy who’s initially resented by the couple’s natural daughter. “Francis,” set a few years later, recounts the daughter’s friendship with an eccentric American schoolmate (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and Jane Birkin has a field day as his doting single mother. Yet these last two characters, as well as the family’s maid (Dominique Blanc) and her boyfriend (Isaac de Bankole), disappear in “Daddy,” which follows the family’s return to the States once the siblings are teenagers and the father’s health is deteriorating. The three parts add up to a rather lumpy narrative, and the characters are perceived through a kind of affectionate recollection that tends to idealize them, but they’re so beautifully realized that they linger like cherished friends. This is Ivory’s best film since Mr.… Read more »
John Waters’s laid-back comedy and ultimate anti-New York statement (1998) concerns a young sandwich maker (Edward Furlong) whose amateurish photos of his working-class life in Baltimore are discovered by the New York art world (mainly through a dealer played with wonderful understatement by Lili Taylor). Waters builds to a didactic message that he underlines with Disney-esque dream dust (in various colors), as if to protect his sincerity with the disclaimer of self-mockery. Always a better writer than director, Waters makes me laugh even when he’s dawdling, and though this is no Hairspray there’s a lot of good-natured funny stuff here about the hero’s sugar-addicted kid sister, his fag-hag older sister (Martha Plimpton), the girlfriend who runs a laundromat (Christina Ricci), and other local eccentrics. It’s a low-key effort compared to a hyperraunch festival like There’s Something About Mary, but that movie could never have existed without Waters’s shining example. (JR)… Read more »
An intriguing tale of moral regeneration from Shohei Imamura (Eijanaika, The Ballad of Narayama, The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology), adapted from Akira Yoshimura’s novel Sparkles in the Darkness. A white-collar worker spends eight years in prison after brutally murdering his wife and her lover; released to the supervision of a Buddhist priest in a small coastal town, he becomes a barber and relates almost exclusively to a pet eel he adopted while incarcerated. After saving the life of a suicidal woman who resembles his late wife, the barber makes her his assistant, yet the growing bond between them is complicated by her crazed mother and her ex-lover. The film brims over with various eccentrics (the barber’s ufologist neighbor and a former prison mate who harasses the hero and delivers drunken tirades), and Imamura views them all with mixed amusement and curiosity; he also does striking things with dream sequences and visual and aural flashbacks. At Cannes this shared the 1997 Palme d’Or with Taste of Cherry, and though I don’t consider it on the same level, it’s absorbing throughout and a good deal more accessible. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 18 through 24. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1998). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Written by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan, and Imamura
With Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Fujio Tsuneta, Mitsuko Baisho, Akira Emoto, and Sho Aikawa.
I’ve seen only five of Shohei Imamura’s 19 features, most of them so many years apart that it’s hard to see many stylistic or thematic connections. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that his 18th, The Eel (1997) — which shared last year’s Palme d’Or with Taste of Cherry and opens this week at the Music Box — is the most interesting new movie around: funny, lyrical, provocative, imaginative, and consistently entertaining. That it happens to be Japanese is incidental to its interest, though I suppose a lot of people won’t go to see it because it isn’t in English. (I suspect the problem isn’t so much xenophobia as habit; most Americans have never seen a subtitled movie and probably regard the prospect of seeing one as work.)
It’s been a truism for quite some time that the Japanese cinema is in terrible shape, financially and aesthetically (particularly now that Akira Kurosawa has died) — though it’s not clear to what extent one should believe the overseas commentators who sift through the available evidence.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1998). The illustration comes courtesy of Paul Cronin, who found it in Amos Vogel’s papers in Wisconsin. — J.R.
Talking Pictures: Scott MacDonald on Cinema 16
During its penultimate season I was lucky enough to be a member of the groundbreaking New York film society Cinema 16, where I got my first taste of Robert Bresson and Jacques Rivette. Run by Amos and Marcia Vogel between 1946 and 1963, Cinema 16 was special because it presented all kinds of “marginal” works that no one else was showing at the time. This lecture-presentation by Scott MacDonald — a specialist in independent and experimental film who’s edited a collection of scripts and three invaluable volumes of his own interviews with filmmakers — will include not only a historical account of Cinema 16′s work but a selection of remarkable shorts shown there, including Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) and Eaux d’Artifice (1953), Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943), Robert Breer’s Cats (1956), and, from abroad, Arne Sucksdorff’s A Divided World (1948) and Georges Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts (1949). Franju’s film, a late addition to the program, is an extraordinary documentary about the everyday workings of a Paris slaughterhouse that manages to be shocking, lyrical, and highly moral–a good example of the great work Chicagoans almost never get to see.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1998). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Koepp and De Palma
With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, and Luis Guzman.
For me, part of the fun of Snake Eyes is the genuine satisfaction of seeing Brian De Palma finally arriving at his own level. Whatever the merits of his imitations and appropriations — of 50s Hitchcock in Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double, 60s Antonioni in Blow Out, and 30s Hawks in Scarface – and his inflations of TV standbys (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), they’ve always suggested he was riding into town on somebody else’s horse. Now, however, he seems more apt to make the 90s equivalents of B movies: such films as Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Snake Eyes are generic stylistic exercises that reveal he’s digested his sources rather than simply devoured and regurgitated them. Though he remains too much of a mannerist to approximate the modest craft of Roy Ward Baker in Don’t Bother to Knock or Richard Fleischer in The Narrow Margin – thrillers of 1952 that in their adept use of real time and limited settings suggest parallels with Snake Eyes – De Palma’s technique seems more focused for a change.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
If one can accept the revolting notion that ants are just like people — rather than the more demonstrable premise that some film workers, film publicists, and filmgoers are a little like ants — then one might easily find this 1998 computer-animation effort from Dreamworks as cute as its title. The real premise is that ants are just like superstars — people like Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, and Jennifer Lopez, all of whom have lent their voices and screen personalities to ant characters. For example, Allen, in truth an emblem of herd instinct, inevitably is employed to represent individuality — in the form of an ant named Z who resembles E.T. and kvetches a lot. Disneyfied anthropomorphism is the name of the game here, and I was left wondering whether Pepsi paid for the use of Give Peace a Chance (rendered here as Give Z a Chance). I suspect an account of all the complex business transactions would be more fun than anything in the movie, where you can’t see a blue sky that doesn’t resemble the Dreamworks logo. PG, 83 min.… Read more »
A serious and interesting but unsuccessful feature by Iran’s most famous woman filmmaker, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1997), focusing on a divorced documentary filmmaker and her teenage son. The issues broachedsuch as whether the heroine can date men without alienating her son and what makes an ideal mother (the subject of her documentary in progress, of which we see several samples)are important, but this is an issue-driven rather than character-driven film, and without fully realized characters it comes across as somewhat flat. Not even a poetic offscreen narration by the heroine, including quotes from Persian poetry, can paper over the gaps. For much of the time we’re kept deliberately distant from the charactersmany sequences consist of cars on freeways accompanied by voice-oversbut one isn’t persuaded that a closer look would teach us more. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
The fascinating thing about this award-winning feature-length documentary (1996) by Duan Jinchuan from mainland China is that it often seems to approximate the work of Frederick Wiseman in showing us the everyday workings of contemporary society — although the society in this case is one we generally know little about. The focus here is on a neighborhood committee in Lhasa, Tibet, where citizens go to settle family disputes, petty thieves and other delinquents are chastised and advised, community finances are computed, and street vendors are regulated, among many other activities. This doesn’t register like a thesis-driven film, though the preparations for an official ceremony celebrating the Chinese occupation of Tibet towards the end certainly has its creepy side, and one that implicitly rhymes with the other forms of patriarchal rule that one has witnessed in most of the preceding segments. (JR)… Read more »
Seeing this singular 1968 American experimental feature by William Greaves a second time (on video; the first time was in 1981, in its original 35-millimeter format) has led me to value it more, though arguably the fact that it loses relatively little impact on video constitutes one of its limitations. Greaves, a pioneering black actor whose career stretches back to postwar films made for black audiences as well as the underrated Hollywood feature Lost Boundaries, went on to direct over 200 documentaries, host and executive produce NET’s Black Journal, and teach acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For this eccentric venture, he got two white actors to play a quarreling couple in Central Park and proceeded to film not only them (in both rehearsal and performance) but also himself and his camera crew and various other people in the vicinity, often juxtaposing two or three camera angles simultaneously in split screen in the final edit. The crew’s own doubts and speculations about the film being made were also recorded later and edited into the mix. The couple’s quarrel is vitriolic and singularly unpleasant, the acting variable, the collective insight into what Greaves is up to mainly uncertain. The title modifies a term coined by political scientist and philosopher Arthur Bentley that refers to the interactions between people and their environment, and the notion of a shifting center is what gives this experiment much of its interest and also limits it from going very far in any single direction.… Read more »
The dubious and overrated John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), a specialist in making reductive new versions of other people’s movies, directs a script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman that’s a tiresome rip-off of The Hustler, with poker (in a New York Russian Mafia milieu) taking the place of pool, Matt Damon taking over for Paul Newman, and John Malkovich’s scenery chewing supplanting Jackie Gleason’s self-effacement. Gretchen Mol, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Martin Landau, and Famke Janssen costar; they’re all pretty good, but not good enough to make this 1998 feature worth seeing. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »
This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In Billy, the first of the film… Read more »
A potentially charming, almost fairy-tale premise for a romantic comedya Hollywood tour-bus driver (Jeremy Piven) who cruises past the homes of celebrities meets a movie star (Sherilyn Fenn) and pretends to be a screenwriter, thus ushering him into a potential romance and a taste of the local high lifeprogressively loses its air and becomes a mainly lugubrious experience because the script (by Stan Williamson) is so formulaic and threadbare. Andrew Gallerani, in his first feature as a director, does a pretty good job with the actors, but they need better material than they’re handed here. With JoBeth Williams, Alex Rocco, Jeffrey Sams, and Wallace Shawn. (JR)… Read more »
Another noirish heist movie stained by drippings from The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, and, yes, Reservoir Dogs. Written by newcomer Eddie Richey and directed by English-born Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd), this boasts occasional signs of intelligence , atmosphere, and style as well as some nicely lit ‘Scope cinematography around Phoenix, Arizona, by James L. Carter (One False Move). But, alas, there’s very little forward motion. Coproducer Ray Liotta, playing a cop with gambling debts who organizes the heist, is asked to carry the whole picture on his back; he can’t be blamed if periodically it slides off. Despite some able work by Anjelica Huston, Tom Noonan, and Giancarlo Esposito, among others, the material and its inflection seem entirely too familiar. With Anthony LaPaglia, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven, and Brittany Murphy. (JR)… Read more »