Because most of the acting is authentic and powerful (especially that of Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, and Jim True), the source (a Russell Banks novel) is more than respectable, and the subjectan all-around fuckup (Nolte) in a dying New England town becomes even more fucked-upand winter setting are unrelentingly grim, one has to admire writer-director Paul Schrader for having the guts to make this picture. But I found it more punishing than edifying. A brave effort to stare down the specter of American failure, it gets off on the wrong foot by pretentiously turning the doomed hero into a Christ figurea traffic cop with arms extended in crucifixion modebefore the story even gets started. Flashbacks come in two subjective stylesgrainy and handheld to recount the meanness and violence of the hero’s awful father (James Coburn, a bit out of his depth), black-and-white to reconfigure the recent past. The hero’s brother (Willem Dafoe), daughter (Brigid Tierney), and ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) all have their say, but the narcissism of wounded macho gets in the last word, and it’s last year’s groceries. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: January 1999
The Lovers of Pont-Neuf
This 1992 French feature by Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) could be the great urban expressionist fantasy of the 90s: like Sunrise and Lonesome in the 20s and Playtime and Alphaville in the 60s, it uses a city’s physical characteristics to poetically reflect the consciousness of its characters. Carax daringly and disconcertingly begins the film as a documentary portrait of the homeless in Paris, but it becomes a delirious love story between two people (Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche) who live on one of Paris’s most famous bridges and experience the whole city as a kind of enchanted playground, a vision that reaches an explosive apotheosis during a bicentennial fireworks display over the Seine. To realize his lyrical and monumental vision, Carax built a huge set in the French countryside that depicted Pont-Neuf and its surroundings, making this one of the most expensive French productions ever mounted. So the film seems an ideal subject for a lecture by former Chicagoan Stuart Klawans, film critic for the Nation and author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order, a new book with a witty and highly original sense of film history. The Lovers of Pont-Neuf is Carax’s best work to date; it’s slated to open here commercially later this year.… Read more »
Playing by Heart
This charming romantic comedy with a Los Angeles setting cuts between seemingly unconnected miniplots the way some Robert Altman movies do. In the final scenes the connections become clear, but until then the links are strictly thematic, having to do with love of one kind or another. A distraught man (Dennis Quaid) offers contradictory hard-luck stories to different women (including one drag queen) in different bars; two couples (Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart, Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe) each encounter romantic difficulties caused by the fears of one member; a mother (Ellen Burstyn) comforts her son who’s dying of AIDS (Jay Mohr); an elderly couple (Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands) bickers; a younger couple (Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards) pursues a clandestine and emotionless affair. This differs most strikingly from Altman’s work in that the overall thrust of the stories is optimistic–but even the most overly determined happy ending can seem welcome after Altman’s heavy cynicism. The writer-director, whose previous features (Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Runestone) are unknown to me, is Willard Carroll; cinematography is by former Altman collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond and music is by John Barry. Evanston, 600 N. Michigan, Webster Place.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
Sidney Lumet’s misguided 1999 remake of the John Cassavetes feature about a pistol-packing woman who accidentally becomes the guardian of a six-year-old boy hunted by the mob. Cassavetes’s original script was designed to be commercial, and someone else was supposed to direct itthough Cassavetes wound up with the jobso the notion of a remake with Sharon Stone taking over the Gena Rowlands part sounds plausible. Unfortunately Stone reaches for 50s reference points like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday that throw the whole conception out of kilter. Steven Antin wrote the screenplay; with Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, Cathy Moriarty, George C. Scott, and Bonnie Bedelia. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
With the possible exception of The Eighth Day, this entry in the 90s Oscar-mongering heartwarming disability sweepstakes has got to be the most repulsive yet. Kenneth Branagh plays a would-be inventor in trouble with the law whose community service is caring for a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease (you guessed itHelena Bonham Carter). She asks him to help her lose her virginity. The commercial release of an atrocity like this cynical-sentimental caper from England while infinitely better features from abroad get passed over is the kind of thing that unjustifiably gives international cinema a bad name. Richard Hawkins wrote the script and Paul Greengrass directed it; with Gemma Jones and Holly Aird. (JR)… Read more »
From the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Thin Red Line
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Terrence Malick
With Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen, Dash Mihok, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney.
Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures was in effect a tie-breaker between two irreconcilable positions.
As a participant in the meeting I saw partisans of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan square off against partisans of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s first film since Days of Heaven (1978). Practically no one voted for both — only Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind — so Steven Soderbergh lurched forward as a second choice, finally copping 28 votes while Spielberg and Malick tied for second place with 25 votes apiece.… Read more »
Narita: Heta Village
From 1967 to 1974 Japanese documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa lived with the farmers of Sanrizuka, whose village was targeted for demolition to make room for Tokyo’s Narita airport. Supported by radical students, the farmers protested their eviction, and Ogawa joined in, recording both the long-term struggle and the everyday life of the village. His intense involvement eventually yielded five films with a combined running time of about 15 hours; the 146-minute Narita: Heta Village (1973) is the second and final segment included in Doc Films’ retrospective of virtuoso cinematographer Masaki Tamura. Ogawa emphasizes the lifestyle and traditions the farmers are fighting to preserve, and both he and Tamura (a farmer’s grandson himself) show a deep sensitivity and responsiveness to these people. My favorite sequences include an interview with a woman while she slices a radish into the shape of a phallus (which she jokingly attaches to sweet potato “testicles”), a candid and affectionate conversation with an 86-year-old woman seated on her porch, and an opening sequence in which Tamura’s camera roams around a field to illustrate a farmer’s anecdotes. Subjective and highly empathetic, this documentary is less a statement than a friendly conversation: Ogawa can be heard frequently as both narrator and interviewer, the periodic intertitles are no less personal, and the villagers repay the filmmakers’ warmth by freely sharing their lives with the camera.… Read more »
An uncredited Jean-Luc Godard produced this 1997 third feature by the singular American independent Rob Tregenza (Talking to Strangers, The Arc), and along with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, Godard is certainly a presiding guru over this powerful if enigmatic view of life in and around a psychiatric hospital somewhere in rural, snowbound America. Shot by Tregenza himself (one of the best cinematographers on the planet) in black-and-white 35-millimeter ‘Scope — mainly in extremely long, choreographed takes that transpire with a minimum of dialogue but with an extremely inventive and original Dolby sound track — the film offers not so much a plot in the usual sense as a series of interlocking characters and events governed, like the film’s title, by polarities: sound and image, interior and exterior, sanity and madness, freedom and institutional captivity, society and isolation. According to clues planted in the clothes and decor (especially the cars), the action begins around 1945 and ends in the present or near future, but to confuse matters further the characters and their behavior remain unaging constants. Tregenza’s background in existential philosophy serves him well: every shot comprises an event, and most of them were shot only once, in a single take (as in Talking to Strangers), allowing change and contingency to shape the material.… Read more »
As part of his ongoing project to turn himself into Clive Barker, Neil Jordan directs his coadaptation (with Bruce Robinson) of Bari Wood’s novel Doll’s Eyes. It’s about a New England housewife (Annette Bening) possessed by a vengeful psychotic (Robert Downey Jr.) who controls her dreams, and if it were a vignette in the old EC comic book Tales From the Crypt, I’d probably give it a B-minus or a C-plus. Unfortunately, this takes a lot longer to watch than one of those tales ever took to read, and the strident tone of hysteria is too unvaried to allow for much suspense or sense of character to take shape; Bening alone wore me down in about ten minutes. Some pretty autumn foliage, a couple of nice visual effects, and Downey in his manic prime all couldn’t prevent me from wanting this to end a lot sooner than it did. With Aidan Quinn (the husband) and Stephen Rea (the shrink). (JR)… Read more »
Divorce Iranian Style
Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini directed this documentary about divorce in Iran, where a man is free to leave his wife but a woman needs either her husband’s permission or proof that he’s insane or sterile. The film’s image of contemporary Iranian women clashes with Western stereotypes: despite their legal handicaps, the women we see here are angry, aggressive, and resourceful. Longinotto (an English documentarian) and Mir-Hosseini (a divorced Iranian anthropologist based in London) make their feminist bias clear from the outset, and their periodic involvement in the court proceedings adds to the interest. This Iranian-British coproduction is a rare example of a successful documentary in the mode of Frederick Wiseman made outside the United States; it’s clearly been facilitated by the recent liberalization of the Iranian government. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 8, 6:00; Saturday, January 9, 4:00 and 7:45; and Sunday, January 10, 8:00; 312-443-3737.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
This 1968 feature about Hungarians joining the Red Army during the 1918 Russian civil war was the first feature by Miklos Jancso I ever saw, and it proved to be an excellent introduction to his work. Filmed in extremely long takes in black and white ‘Scope, with the camera frequently in gliding motion, the film, like most of Jancso’s work, is a highly choreographed historical pageant that is highly charged with erotic elements as well as meditations on the nature of power. Highly recommended. In Hungarian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
This 1990 short by Canadian filmmaker, painter, musician, and conceptual artist Michael Snow, his latest film, features him rising from a desk, saying good-bye to a woman, and walking out a dooran event filmed with a Super Slo-Mo camera and stretched out to 18 beautiful and fascinating minutes. Snow aptly calls the film slightly activated Vermeer, and it’s a wonderful and multifaceted experience. Also known as See You Later. (JR)… Read more »
Three shorts: Sabriya, by Tunisian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, and Whispers (an experimental work in progress) and Boujad: A Nest in the Heat, by Moroccan filmmaker Hakim Belabbes (a student at Columbia College). I’ve seen Boujad, an intense and compelling 45-minute documentary about Belabbes… Read more »
So-so ecological SF thriller from 1973 about superintelligent ants. Director Saul Bass is best known for creating the title sequences to many key films by Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger; he directed a few films of his own, but to the best of my knowledge this is his only feature. With Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederic, and Michael Murphy. (JR)… Read more »
This neglected Samuel Fuller feature from 1952, a giddy look at New York journalism in the 1880s, was his personal favoritehe financed it himself and lost every penny. A principled cigar smoker (Gene Evans) becomes the hard-hitting editor of a new Manhattan daily, where he competes with his former employer (Mary Welch) in a grudge match loaded with sexual undertones; meanwhile a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge trying to become famous, the Statue of Liberty is given to the U.S. by France, and a newspaper drive raises money for its pedestal. Enthusiasm flows into every nook and cranny of this cozy movie: when violence breaks out in the cramped-looking set of the title street, the camera weaves in and out of the buildings as through a sports arena, in a single take. Park Row is repeated incessantly like a crazy mantra, and the overall fervor of this vest-pocket Citizen Kane makes journalism sound like the most exciting activity in the world. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »