Monthly Archives: May 1999

The Love Letter

A tender and sometimes very funny romantic comedy set in a New England seaside town, this is also something of a parable about what overheated summers can do to romantic imaginations. An unsigned love letter falls into the hands of various individuals who make creative assumptions about the author and intended recipient; many of them work at a secondhand bookstore. I suspect that a fair amount of the wit derives from Cathleen Schine’s source novel, but producer and lead actress Kate Capshaw (who plays the owner of the bookstore and has never been better), director Peter Ho-sun Chan (Comrades, Almost a Love Story), and screenwriter Maria Maggenti (who wrote and directed The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) make a wonderfully harmonious team. The other featured actors–Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck (also at his best), Tom Everett Scott, Blythe Danner, Geraldine McEwan, and Julianne Nicholson–all seem to be on the same wavelength as well. (The music by Luis Bacalov also is quite appealing.) At times Chan’s quirky direction fudges the storytelling, but I didn’t mind. Esquire, Gardens, Lake, Norridge, Webster Place.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Thirteenth Floor

Another virtual-reality SF movie. The main thing that distinguishes this one from the others is the fact that several of the people behind it (including director and cowriter Josef Rusnak, coproducer Roland Emmerich, executive producers Michael and Helga Ballhaus, and actor Armin Mueller-Stahl) are Germanthough a flat boilerplate English is spoken by everyone throughout. Mueller-Stahl and Craig Bierko play inventors who have simulated 1937 Los Angeles on a computer chip; when one is murdered in present-day LA shortly after returning from 1937, the other enters the same simulation to get to the bottom of things. But of course the bottom in this ponderous romp is more simulation: simulated past and present in terms of metaphysics, poorly simulated Blade Runner and Vertigo in terms of story structure and style, and simulated human beings instead of charactersa simulated movie, in short. When the hero finds himself doing the lindy hop in 1937, you don’t know whether the anachronism belongs to Mueller-Stahl or to the screenwriters (adapting Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron 3), and you’re not likely to care. With Gretchen Mol (a pale simulation of Kim Novak), Vincent D’Onofrio , Dennis Haysbert, and Steven Schub. (JR)… Read more »

War-Zone

Activist-filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West got so tired of being stared at and harassed on the street that she decided to fight back and started filming as well as interrogating the men bugging her. Usually she held one camera while behind her a camerawoman held another, and she carried out this counteraggression in several American cities, meanwhile recounting the experiences of other women who didn’t have cameras at their disposal. To the filmmaker’s credit, she doesn’t always select the confrontations in which she comes off best and the men come off worst; just about everything she shows, however, is fascinating, revealing, and provocative. The encounters are also interspersed with some striking experimental and free-form interludes about city street life, and fragments of an autobiographical statement are subtly woven into the mix. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, May 21, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, May 24 through 27, 7:00 and 9:00; 773-281-4114. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Trekkies

If you’re interested in learning what the Star Trek craze is all about, this facetious cheap-shot documentary by Roger Nygard isn’t the place to go; it’s merely a freak show that invites the audience to ridicule the show’s fans and fanatics. The flavor of a daytime TV talk show is so thick that even some of the show’s creators and stars are slimed in the process. Denise Crosby serves as hostess. (JR)… Read more »

Frogs For Snakes

New York actors moonlight as violent money collectors. One (Barbara Hershey) is the ex-wife of a gang leader (Robbie Coltrane) who wants to stage a production of American Buffalo. I assume writer-director Amos Poe, an independent associated with Manhattan’s SoHo and Lower East Side, must have thought this was a funny and not simply ridiculous premise, and that someone else liked the idea enough to finance itor maybe the gore and sadism reminded somebody of Tarantino and somebody else needed a tax write-off. Go figure. A lot of good actors get wasted heretypes as diverse as John Leguizamo and Taylor Mead in a cameoand so does the time anybody spends watching this. PS: The title music is a bad reorchestration of Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for The Man With the Golden Arm; I hope that at least Bernstein received a royalty. (JR)… Read more »

The Love Letter

A tender and sometimes very funny romantic comedy set in a New England seaside town, this is also something of a parable about what overheated summers can do to romantic imaginations. An unsigned love letter falls into the hands of various individuals who make creative assumptions about the author and intended recipient; many of them work at a secondhand bookstore. I suspect that a fair amount of the wit derives from Cathleen Schine… Read more »

A Place Called Chiapas

An intelligent and informative feature-length documentary by Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild about the Zapatista movement and uprising in southern Mexico, concentrating on events that occurred between 1994 and 1997. The film focuses mainly (and cogently) on the struggles of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico and in cyberspace, but it also allows the government-allied, paramilitary group north of Chiapas, which calls itself Peace and Justice, to speak on its own behalf (when it isn’t assaulting the film crew). This is sturdy as well as stirring political filmmaking that asks all the right questions, including ones about the role of the U.S. in the outcome. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, May 14, 8:15; Saturday, May 15, 6:00 and 8:00; Sunday, May 16, 4:00 and 6:00; and Tuesday and Thursday, May 18 and 20, 6:00 and 8:00; 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

The Empty Mirror

In his bunker but outside of historical time, Adolf Hitler (Norman Rodway) dictates his memoirs, ruminates on his life while screening various documentaries and home movies, chats with Joseph Goebbels (Joel Grey) and Hermann G… Read more »

The King Of Masks

Wu Tianming (Old Well)the former godfather of mainland China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers when he headed the Xian film studio and green-lighted such innovative pictures as The Horse Thief, Red Sorghum, and King of Childrenreturned to filmmaking in 1996 after an extended stint in the U.S. This beautifully inflected and wholly accessible tale, set in Sichuan in the 30s, concerns an aging street performer (Zhu Xu) who unknowingly purchases and adopts a little girl (Zhou Ren-ying), thinking she’s a boy, with the intention of training an heir. Though the premise sounds hokey, the storytelling and performances are so expressive that one might not even notice the subtle and detailed commentary being offered on gender politics. An actor and female impersonator (Zhao Zhigang) plays a pivotal role in the proceedings. In Mandarin with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Castle

A very far cry from the Franz Kafka novel of the same title, this faux populist Australian comedy, Miramax to the max, is a prime example of how readily that country’s intermittent self-hatred can be translated into box office: it reportedly grossed more than any other Australian movie in 1997. A sweet-tempered and terminally dim tow-truck driver and family man (Michael Caton) refuses to sell his house to allow for an airport extension, fights his cause all the way up to the supreme court, and guess what? The little man triumphs. Director Rob Sitch is no Capra and none of his three writers comes close to Robert Rifkin, but if what you’re looking for is another opportunity to feel simultaneously superior to and affectionate about hicks, then I guess this is your movie. With Anne Tenney, Stephen Curry, Sophie Lee, Anthony Simcoe, and Charles Bud Tingwell. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ten Best Jazz Films (1999 list)

Joseph McBride, a friend, asked me to contribute a list of some sort to The Book of Movie Lists (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1999), which he put together, and here’s what we came up with. -– J.R.

The 10 Best Jazz Films

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

What follows is a personal list of neither the best films on jazz (e.g., Jazz on A Summer’s Day) nor the best examples of jazz on film (such as the Fats Waller soundies or the 1981 Johnny Griffin at the Village Vanguard), but something more special and rarified: films in which the aesthetics of jazz and the aesthetics of film find some happy and mutually supportive meeting ground.

1.Black & Tan (DUDLEY MURPHY, 1929). Remarkable not only as an experimental narrative by the (often uncredited) main author of Ballet mécanique and as a radical political statement about to whom jazz belongs, but also as a ravishing, poetic marriage between the music of Duke Ellington and the poetics of death and orgasm. Only twenty-one minutes long, but the aesthetics of jazz and film start here.

2.When it Rains (CHARLES BURNETT, 1995). A twelve-minute miracle, and, alas, the only film on this list by a black filmmaker, this is a jazz parable about the discovery of common ‘6os roots via a John Handy album in contemporary L.A., with a wonderful offscreen commentary.… Read more »

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

From the Chicago Reader (May 1999). — J.R.

Not bad for a toy commercial, and the SF settings, however familiar, are even more impressive than the gadgets and beasties. The casualties are narrative momentum (at least compared to episode four) and the actors — Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park — who are stilted and humorless but can’t be blamed, since George Lucas’s mind was on the digital effects. (An overgrown Jamaican reptile of indeterminate gender named Jar Jar Binks has been created specifically to tell the audience when it’s OK to laugh.) At great expense, Lucas has finally succeeded in duplicating his low-budget models (mainly serials and westerns of the 50s) in emotional range as well as in action. The digital effects help him realize this sincere aim, but the campy whiffs of pseudoprofundity are strictly analogical and exclusively the writer-director’s, and in a way they’re every bit as charming as the simplicity. PG, 133 min. (JR)

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The Lovers Of The Arctic Circle

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1999). — J.R.

loversofthearcticcircle2

The best Spanish film I’ve seen in years, this 1998 feature by Julio Medem (Cows, The Red Squirrel, Earth), attractively shot in ‘Scope, is the story of two young lovers who first encounter one another at the age of eight, told from alternating viewpoints that after 17 years converge in Finland. The romantic style of the film commands attention as much as the story itself, which is shaped — like the names of the two lead characters, Otto and Ana — as a palindrome. The graceful jumping about in time and space may recall the early work of Alain Resnais, but the theme and ambience are Spanish to the core; Medem charts the crisscrossing destinies of the two leads with passion as well as lyricism. With Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 112 min. (JR)

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Echoes of Old Hollywood [DESTINY & THE ADOPTED SON]

From the Chicago Reader, April 2, 1999. —J.R.

Destiny

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Youssef Chahine

Written by Chahine and Khaled Youssef

With Nour el-Cherif, Laila Eloui, Mahmoud Hemeida, Safia el-Emary, Mohamed Mounir, Khaled el-Nabaoui, Abdallah Mahmoud, and Ahmed Fouad-Selim.

The Adopted Son

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Aktan Abdikalikov

Written by Abdikalikov, Avtandil Adikulov, and Marat Sarulu

With Mirlan Abdikalikov, Albina Imasmeva, Adir Abilkassimov, Bakit Zilkieciev, and Mirlan Cinkozoev.

Apart from their exoticism, Youssef Chahine’s Destiny and Aktan Abdikalikov’s The Adopted Son don’t have much in common. Destiny is the 35th film by Chahine, a 73-year-old writer, director, and sometime actor who’s generally agreed to be the major figure in the history of Egyptian cinema. His subject here is Averroes (1126-1198), a dissident Spanish-Arab philosopher best known for his commentaries on Aristotle, and his film resembles a Hollywood period spectacular — exuberant, packed with action, and positively overflowing with energy. The Adopted Son is both the first independent feature ever made in Kyrgyzstan — a former Soviet republic in central Asia — and the first feature of 42-year-old writer-director Abdikalikov, who cast his own teenage son in the title role. It’s shot mainly in an exquisitely modulated black and white, though it periodically shifts to color, always with great dramatic effect.… Read more »

The Mirror

Jafar Panahi followed his debut feature, The White Balloon, with this 1997 story of a little girl in downtown Tehran who waits for her mother to pick her up from school and eventually decides to make her way home alone; finally Panahi shifts his focus to the making of the film itself. If you haven’t seen any Iranian pictures this may seem fresh, but if you know Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf it’s likely to seem familiar. Kiarostami furnished the story for The White Balloon, and without his input Panahi seems stuck for a resolution to the narrative, though his documentary-style handling of both actors and everyday street life remains acute. (JR)… Read more »