Monthly Archives: March 1999

For A Few Lousy Dollars

Based on the 20 minutes I sampled on video, this low-budget, sub-Tarantino crime caper from Canada is worth your time only if your expectations are down, dirty, mean, and lowin a word, modest. Michael Bafaro directed the script by Ivan Tylor; with Ben Ratner, John Cassini, Frank Cassini, Freddy Andreiuci, and Lori Triolo. (JR)… Read more »


A better-than-average Quentin Tarantino imitation, this 1999 feature crosscuts the overlapping adventures of a teenage supermarket cashier (Sarah Polley) who’s filling in for a British coworker and trying to take over a little of his drug business to score some rent money, the coworker (Desmond Askew) partying in Las Vegas, and a couple of TV actors (Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr) caught up in a drug sting. The LA-underground characters, situations, and ambience keep this lively, even if most of the Tarantino-esque narrative rewinds seem forced and dutiful. Doug Liman (Swingers) shot and directed the script by first-timer (and coproducer) John August; others in the cast include Katie Holmes, Taye Diggs, William Fichtner, Nathan Bexton, and Timothy Olyphant. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crass Consciousness [EDTV]

From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1999). — J.R.


Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

With Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Hurley.

I tend to like Ron Howard movies. They’re usually energetic, Capra-like popular entertainments that respect the audience — not a common virtue these days. Howard is one of the few remaining filmmakers from the Hollywood studio tradition who can be counted on to offer honest diversion without making any undue claims for what he’s doing — and I include everything from Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift to Splash and Cocoon, from Gung Ho and Parenthood to the underrated Far and Away, Backdraft, and The Paper, and even dubious efforts such as Willow and Apollo 13. Even when his films are satirical, as Gung Ho is, they don’t offer their commentaries from the top of soap boxes, and their messages are sweet tempered rather than caustic.

EDtv conforms to this pattern, though it runs up against a current conundrum — how can one criticize the excesses of the contemporary media without blaming the audience?… Read more »

10 Things I Hate About You

Larisa Oleynik plays a popular teenage girl forbidden to date until her shrewish older sister (Julia Stiles) finds a boyfriend; so she and her potential beau (Andrew Keegan) set about finding sis a match. Actually, this isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds; Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s script has its witty moments, and some of the secondary characterssuch as Larry Miller as the father and Daryl Chill Mitchell as an irritable teacherare every bit as quirky as the leads. Gil Junger directed this 1999 Disney comedy derived from The Taming of the Shrew; though the connections are fairly loose, this is arguably closer to Shakespeare in its overall sense of character and even in its sprightly use of music than Shakespeare in Love. Others in the cast include Heath Ledger, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and David Krumholtz. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Doug’s 1st Movie

I haven’t seen Disney’s Doug, the Saturday-morning animated TV series about young teens, but judging from this feature-length spin-off, it combines ugly color combinations and crude animation with engaging characters and plot situations that speak to adolescents. The plot in this case is a goofy reworking of E.T. in which the Lucky Duck Lake monster becomes the kids’ secret pal and nasty adults try to rub it out. Uncharacteristically pithy at less than 80 minutes, the movie makes room for a romantic subplot that has its own charms, culminating in the memorable line, Skeeter Valentine, dance me! Directed by Maurice Joyce from a script by Ken Scarborough. (JR)… Read more »

Homegirls: New Work by Chicago Women and Girls

Homegirls: New Work by Chicago Women and Girls

Three of the nine works on this program are by friends, so I’m glad I like them as much as I do. Sohrab Shahid Saless: Far From Home, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s highly personal tribute and invaluable introduction to the seminal filmmaker who worked in Iran and Germany and died last summer in Chicago, mixes clips, commentary, and interviews to create a poetic, bittersweet statement about loss and exile. Vanalyne Green’s Saddle Sores: A Blue Western, about contracting herpes from a Wyoming cowboy, includes many film clips, photographs, printed titles, country-and-western favorites, conversations with friends, and confessions. It’s every bit as jokey and analytical as Green’s earlier video A Spy in the House That Ruth Built, about her sexual attraction to baseball players; but here the narration is much more self-accusing as it explores how she romanticized cowboys and let herself get herpes, and then had to deal with the shame–which makes the relentlessly bantering tone a lot more unsettling and challenging. Ann Marie Fleming’s Tiresias offers a short, hilarious version of Ovid with animated stick figures. I also liked Paula Froehle’s experimental Fever, which interrelates sound, text, and images in original and arresting ways, and Anne Northrup’s narrative And Everything Nice, a psychologically acute portrayal of a little girl’s alienation from her parents at the time of Watergate, exceptionally well acted by Jessica Carleton.… Read more »

True Crime

An adulterous, womanizing investigative journalist (director Clint Eastwood), on the wagon and somewhat over the hill, inherits an assignment to interview a man convicted of murder (Isaiah Washington) hours before he’s slated to be executed at San Quentin, and he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Eastwood as a director generally alternates more adventurous projects (Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart) with bread-and-butter fare like the Dirty Harry movies, and this hokey thriller, reeking with 30s prison-movie stereotypes and High Noon countdowns, may be the price we have to pay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The storytelling is as crafty and streamlined as ever, but the story itself, adapted from a novel by Andrew Klavan, is so shopworn that not even three better-than-average screenwriters (Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff) can overcome the cynical and absurd contrivances. Eastwood himself, pushing 70 but cruising women in their early 20s, counts on more goodwill than I can muster. I wasn’t bored, but my suspension of disbelief collapsed well before the end. With Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and James Woods. (JR)… Read more »

Forces Of Nature

En route to Savannah for his big-scale wedding, a phony New Yorker (Ben Affleck) encounters a ditsy life force (Sandra Bullock); they have several picaresque adventures together, and he reaches Savannah less phony. At least that’s the way this tiresome romantic comedy, directed by Bronwen Hughes from a Marc Lawrence script, is supposed to play; I found it pretty phony all the way through, and not even the presence of Blythe Danner as the fiancee’s mother helps much. With Maura Tierney, Steve Zahn, and Ronny Cox. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

First Love, Last Rites

A touching first feature (1997) by Jesse Peretz about the relationship between a young couple (Natasha Gregson Wagner and Giovanni Ribisi) living together in a small fishing village on the Louisiana bayou. She’s a local and he’s there on holiday, where he joins her estranged father (Robert John Burke) in a faltering business venture to catch eels. The plot is somewhat amorphous and not entirely helped by some symbolism involving a rat, but the overall feel of the location is perfectly caught, the poetic and atmospheric interludes punctuating the story are nicely handled, and the acting is first-rate. Adapted by Peretz and David Ryan from a story by Ian McEwan. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, March 13 and 14. – Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Deep End Of The Ocean

This is really two movies rather than onea powerfully acted account of a mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) adjusting to the loss of her kidnapped three-year-old son and an account of how, nine years later, the boy searches for his identity after his family finds him. Each movie has its strengths, but the two never quite come together. Stephen Schiff adapted the best-selling novel of Jacquelyn Mitchard, and perhaps because Pfeiffer’s own production company made the movie, he has had to devote most of his energy to reconciling a star vehicle with a different sort of work. Though director Ulu Grosbard is as good as he usually is with most of the actors, the story problems tend to stump him too. With Treat Williams, Jonathan Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, and John Kapelos. (JR)… Read more »

Teenage Wasteland [CRUEL INTENTIONS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 5, 1999). — J.R.

Cruel Intentions

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Roger Kumble

With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Sean Patrick Thomas, Louise Fletcher, and Swoosie Kurtz.

Cruel Intentions is the fourth movie adaptation I’ve seen of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, possibly the best French novel of the 18th century. It’s also the third version in English — though the first to reconfigure the plot as a contemporary teenage sex comedy. Will it be the last? Considering how serviceable the story is, it’s easy to imagine it being dusted off every decade or so for use in that dubious genre. The substitution of teen yuppies for 18th-century aristocrats isn’t a precise match — as some awkward carryovers of characters’ names makes clear — yet surprisingly, writer-director Roger Kumble comes close to pulling this off. (A writer on such comedies as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Kumble’s art-movie profile appears to be nonexistent.) He sets the story in and around Manhattan, Sin City itself, and makes the scheming protagonists, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), stepsiblings enrolled at an exclusive prep school just outside the city.… Read more »

Paranoia Rising: Origins and Legacy of the Conspiracy Thriller

From Scenario, Spring 1999, Vol. 5, No. 1. -– J.R.

The recent video release and cable premiere of Louis Feuillade’s silent French serial Les Vampires (1915- 1916), making it widely available in the United States for the first time in 80-odd years, clarifies the origins of the paranoid thriller in a particularly acute way. All the basic elements that we associate with movie conspiracies are fully present in Les Vampires, at least in some rudimentary form: high-tech surveillance techniques, secret lairs, hidden wall panels, intricately concealed weapons, elaborate disguises, diverse forms of mind and memory control.

This arsenal of paraphernalia and technology, suggesting that the ordinary world isn’t quite what it appears to be and that everyday life is full of concealed plots and hidden dangers, is surely a staple of this century that didn’t have to wait for video surveillance or the digital revolution before it took over people’s imaginations. Though the political casts of the designated villains fluctuate wildly according to the ideology of the country and period — ranging from the anarchist Vampire gang to the red spies of Cold War thrillers, to the nearly invisible capitalist tycoons of Cutter’s Way (1981), to the smug government bureaucrats in the significantly titled Enemy of the State — the evil designs remain more or less the same.… Read more »

Baby Geniuses

A better title for this atrocitywhich reportedly languished on the shelf for ages before being released like a noxious odorwould be Look Who’s Stalking. Kathleen Turner and Christopher Lloyd, both uncomfortable, play leaders of a baby products company who are trying to crack the baby talk code by studying genius infants locked away in the lab and babbling to one another. We get to hear what the toddlers are actually saying through the miracle of bad dubbing, and apparently it’s proof of their genius that they all speak in ad-copy cliches and do bad imitations of Billy Crystal delivering one-liners. One baby breaks free and contrives to liberate the others; the hokey dialogue and witless physical gags keep everything painful and hectoring. Director Bob Clark wrote the script with Greg Michael, Steven Paul (responsible for the similarly awful Slapstick), and others; with Dom DeLuise, Peter MacNicol, Kim Cattrall, and Ruby Dee. (JR)… Read more »

Cruel Intentions

Reconfiguring the great 18th-century French novel Les liaisons dangereuses as a contemporary teen sex comedy might sound like a bad joke, but writer-director Roger Kumble and his compliant castincluding Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Selma Blairmake it a fairly sexy and amusing one. It’s less pretentious than the artier adaptations of the same novel directed by Roger Vadim, Stephen Frears, and Milos Forman, and in some ways comes at least as close as they did to the overall spirit of the original. With Louise Fletcher and Swoosie Kurtz. (JR)… Read more »

The Matrix

The Wachowski brothers turn their attention to metaphysical SF: Keanu Reeves discovers that the universe (i.e., America and environs) is run by computers that use human beings as batteries for bioelectrical energy, and that he’s living not in 1999 but roughly two centuries later; Laurence Fishburne enlists Reeves to lead a revolt staffed by a small multinational crew (including kick-ass heroine Carrie-Anne Moss). This is simpleminded fun for roughly the first hour, until the movie becomes overwhelmed by its many sourcesBlade Runner (rainy and trash-laden streets), Men in Black (men in dark suits with shades), Star Wars for mythology, Die Hard for skyscrapers, Alien for secondary characters and decor, Superman and True Lies for stunts, and Videodrome for paranoia. There’s not much humor to keep it all life-size, and by the final stretch it’s become bloated, mechanical, and tiresome. 136 min. (JR)… Read more »