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 »
This 1959 Doris Day vehicle, costarring Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, launched a cycle of romantic comedies predicated on her character’s chastity; Mark Rappaport unpacked its extended gay-baiting innuendo in his 1992 film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Compulsively mainstream as only 50s Hollywood could be, and never very funny, Pillow Talk won Day an Oscar nomination, and the story and screenplay, by Stanley Shapiro, Russell Rouse, and others, actually copped an award. Directed by Michael Gordon; with Thelma Ritter, Nick Adams, Julia Meade, Allen Jenkins, Lee Patrick, and William Schallert. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
After seeing the work print of his last Hollywood feature, Orson Welles wrote a lengthy memo requesting several changes in editing and soundwork that was carried out in 1998 by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch with myself as consultant. About the original 95-minute 1958 release (superseded since the mid-70s by a 108-minute preview version), Dave Kehr wrote, “Eternal damnation to the wretch at Universal who printed the opening titles over the most brilliant establishing shot in film history — a shot that establishes not only place and main characters in its continuous movement over several city blocks, but also the film’s theme (crossing boundaries), spatial metaphors, and peculiar bolero rhythm.” These titles now appear at the film’s end — yielding a final running time of 111 minutes — and in the opening shot Henry Mancini’s music comes exclusively from speakers in front of the nightclubs and from a car radio. Other changes involve different sound and editing patterns and a few deletions, all of which add up to a narrative that’s easier to follow, but there’s no new or restored footage. To quote Kehr again, “Welles stars as the sheriff of a corrupt border town who finds his nemesis in visiting Mexican narcotics agent Charlton Heston; the witnesses to this weirdly gargantuan struggle include Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, and Joseph Calleia, who holds the film’s moral center with sublime uncertainty.” (JR)… Read more »
The title of Tony Gatlif’s 1997 French feature is Romany for crazy stranger; the stranger, our main point of identification, is a young scholar and music buff from France who scours the Romanian countryside looking for a legendary singer until a direct and extended encounter with Gypsy culture throws him for a loop. The third part of Gatlif’s Gypsy Trilogyafter Latcho Drom (which I revere) and The Princes (which I haven’t seen)this is a pretty good romantic comedy with neither the formal originality nor the musical excitement of Latcho Drom, though it’s certainly watchable and entertaining throughout. In French with subtitles. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »
The seventh Halloween film has been marketed as the last, which may actually turn out to be the case, as there’s an earnest and successful attempt to give the series a satisfying closure. Jamie Lee Curtiswho made her reputation on the first Halloween but dropped out of the series after the secondis now, 20 years later, teaching at an exclusive private school in northern California, raising a son as a single mother, and once again trying to fend off her murderously insane brother, who won’t stay dead. If you can accept the flouting of logic and credibility that usually goes with this kind of horror picture, this scary and suspenseful genre exercise, chock-full of false alarms and brutal shocks, really delivers, and Curtis approaches the assignment without a trace of condescension. Directed by Steve Miner from a script by Robert Zappia and others; with Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, and Adam Arkin, and an amusing cameo by Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh. (JR)… Read more »
Jonathan Stack and Elizabeth Garbus’s powerful documentary, winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, focuses on six long-term inmates at the Louisiana state penitentiaryan 18,000-acre complex on the grounds of a former slave plantation, with 5,000 inmates, 77 percent of them black. It… Read more »
A tale of moral regeneration from Shohei Imamura, 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 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. In Japanese with subtitles. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »