Monthly Archives: August 1999

Bemused

This appeared in the August 27, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

The Muse

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Albert Brooks

Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson

With Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges, Mark Feuerstein, Stacey Travis, and Steven Wright.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Muse made me laugh, but not as much as the five Albert Brooks movies preceding it. It also made me think less, and that’s more of a problem. I don’t care whether Mel Brooks makes me think, but Albert’s a different matter. He’s a conceptual filmmaker unlike any other — a Stanley Kubrick among comedians whose premises need to be pondered, not simply accepted or rejected.

The Muse is a somewhat flimsy high-concept movie whose ultimate justification is that its subject is the manufacture of flimsy high-concept movies. It isn’t so much about a muse as about the apparent need for one. Steven Phillips (Brooks) is a well-to-do Hollywood screenwriter with a wife (Andie MacDowell) and two daughters — the first Brooks hero to have children — who’s desperate because everyone tells him he’s “lost his edge.” What does that mean? The movie doesn’t say, and Brooks, as usual, doesn’t spell it out.… Read more »

Dick

Two teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) touring the White House in the mid-70s stumble upon some secrets of Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) without realizing what they are, and when things snowball they wind up as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” informant. This is silly and shameless stuff that made me laugh quite a lot, in part because it provides the perfect antidote to the neo-Stalinist pomposity of Oliver Stone’s Nixon and the glib self-importance of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Andrew Fleming (Threesome, The Craft), who directed from a script he wrote with Sheryl Longin, lacks the polish and pizzazz of Stone or Pakula, but arguably his notions about American politics are healthier and more earthbound than theirs; in his book, Nixon and Kissinger and Woodward and Bernstein are all deserving of ridicule. In some ways this is like Forrest Gump without the neocon trimmings, which for me makes it bracing and energizing, though younger viewers may not catch all the historical references. With Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Saul Rubinek as Kissinger, and Teri Garr. Biograph, Evanston, Lake. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Studies in Weightlessness [THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR]

From the Chicago Reader (August 6, 1999). — J.R.


The Thomas Crown Affair

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Alan R. Trustman, Leslie Dixon, and Kurt Wimmer

With Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Frankie R. Faison, and Faye Dunaway.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Seeing an original movie and its remake in reverse order is a bit like reading a novel (as opposed to a novelization) after you’ve seen the movie. It usually distorts your sense of priorities, forcing you to see the ideas and images of the original in terms of the remake. That’s why I suspect I’ll never know whether the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is inferior to the 1968 original. Both are entertaining pieces of trash, but look at them in succession — in either order — and they start to undermine each other.

Both are about a classy investigator for an insurance company (Faye Dunaway in 1968, Rene Russo in 1999) going after a debonair zillionaire (Steve McQueen then, Pierce Brosnan now) who pulls off elaborately planned, outrageous robberies with hired helpers just for the fun of it. In the original, set in Boston, he robs a bank; in the remake he steals a Monet from New York’s Metropolitan Museum and then, just to show how cool he is, replaces it without getting caught.… Read more »

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl

The impressive directorial debut of actress Joan Chen, who’s appeared in everything from Twin Peaks to The Last Emperor to Heaven and Earth. Adapted from the novella “Tian Yu” by Yan Geling, who collaborated with Chen on the screenplay, and filmed in Tibet, this feature has enraged mainland Chinese government officials–not only because it was shot without an official permit but apparently also because its tragic plot gives such a dark portrait of the effects of the Cultural Revolution. The young title heroine, who like many others in her generation travels from a city to a remote part of China, winds up working with a horse trainer in Tibet, a solitary and stoic figure whose quiet love for her is the main focus of the story. Desperate after a spell to return to her native Chengdu, Xiu Xiu winds up sleeping with a series of men who she believes have influence on such state decisions. Exquisitely acted, and shot by Zhang Yimou cinematographer Lu Yue–an impressive director in his own right–with a sharp feeling for landscape, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking. Village. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Trick

An aspiring composer of musicals (Christian Campbell) encounters protracted difficulties trying to have sex with a go-go boy he’s picked up (J.P. Pitoc) in this comedy directed by Jim Fall. I don’t want to oversell its merits, but what’s relatively refreshing about this is that it isn’t another movie about gay men–it’s a movie about these gay men. The other Greenwich Village characters who weave in and out of the action–the hero’s ditsy actress friend (Tori Spelling), his straight and horny roommate, the latter’s eccentric girlfriend, an estranged gay couple, and an outrageous drag queen named Miss Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp)–are comparably singular, and Fall gives certain bits of the story the feel of an old-fashioned musical. Jason Schafer wrote the clever script. Pipers Alley.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

At War with Cultural Violence: The Critical Reception of SMALL SOLDIERS

Chapter Four of my book Movie Wars. It was originally written for Another Kind of Independence: Joe Dante and the Roger Corman Class of 1970, a critical collection coedited with Bill Krohn for the Locarno International Film Festival in 1999, which came out in French and Italian editions. -- J.R.

 

During the spring of 1998, not long before the American release of Small Soldiers, I happened upon “The Toys of Peace,” a wise and wicked tale by Saki included in A. S. Byatt’s recent collection, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Set in 1914, it recounts the noble and doomed efforts of the hero to interest his two nephews, aged nine and ten, in “peace toys”: models of a municipal dustbin and the Manchester branch of the YWCA, lead figurines of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, and a district councillor. Forty minutes later, he looks in on the boys and finds that they’ve converted these objects into war toys: the municipal dustbin punctured with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannons, Mill dipped in red ink to approximate an eighteenth‐century French colonel, with a grisly game plan mapped out to yield a maximum amount of bloodshed, including the remainder of the red ink splashed against the side of the YWCA building.

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Free Enterprise

Though not much more than lightly charming, this romantic comedy about Star Trek fanatics trying to cope in the contemporary world is everything the recent documentary Trekkies failed to be. Written by coproducer Mark A. Altman and director Robert Meyer Burnett, it’s mainly a boys’ movie, and it’s helped as well as hampered by the participation of Star Trek icon William Shatner playing himself. For self-mockeryShatner is seen hawking a musical version of Julius Caesar in which he plays all the partshe’s at least as weird as Dean Martin in Kiss Me, Stupid but not nearly as funny. With Rafer Weigel, Erik McCormack, Audie England, Patrick Van Horn, Deborah Van Valkenberg, and Phil LaMarr. (JR)… Read more »

Leda

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1999). — J.R.

Leda

a-double-tour

Claude Chabrol’s first color feature (1959), also known as À double tour and Web of Passion, adapts a Stanley Ellin thriller in which a bourgeois family’s oedipal conflicts lead to murder. The beautiful color cinematography of Aix-en-Provence is by Henri Decae, and the film is plotted with a mise en scène that suggests Alfred Hitchcock. The lively if uneven cast includes Jean-Paul Belmondo, the creepy André Jocelyn, Madeleine Robinson, Bernadette Lafont, and nouvelle vague axiom Laszlo Szabo. It’s not a total success, but it was one of the first pictures to translate the French New Wave’s genre interests into mainstream terms, and it’s full of sexy and irreverent (as well as brightly irrelevant) details. (JR)

Leda-Lafont1

leda-lafont2Read more »

Albert Brooks, Triple-Threat Truth-Teller

The following was commissioned in 1999 by Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, which decided not to run it because Brooks’s agent refused to let me see The Muse in advance for this article unless a “cover story” was promised. Written By, to its credit, refuses to make deals of this kind. So the magazine paid me for the article and didn’t run it, which I hope made Brooks’s agent properly proud of his efforts. — J.R.

You may recall him as the wealthy convict in Out of Sight, or, prior to that, as Cybill Shepherd’s wisecracking cohort at the campaign headquarters in Taxi Driver, as Holly Hunter’s best friend in Broadcast News, or as the neurotic Hollywood producer in I’ll Do Anything. Maybe, if you’re luckier, you’ve seen his five underrated and highly durable comedies – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), and Mother (1996) — which will be succeeded later this year by The Muse.

Albert Brooks has so far taken solo writing credit only on Defending Your Life — sharing script credit with TV comedy writer Monica Johnson on the other four (as well as on The Scout, a disappointing 1994 baseball movie he didn’t direct), and also with Harry Shearer on Real Life, the first and probably the funniest of the lot.Read more »

Best Laid Plans

Another neo-noir about the intersection of various scams in a small American town. This one stars Alessandro Nivola, Reese Witherspoon, and Josh Brolin, and it’s directed by England’s Mike Barker from a script by Ted Griffin. The movie makes a great show of parsing moral issues, but it’s clear from the outset that the stylish interiors and the fancy colors in Ben Seresin’s cinematography are what really count, along with a couple of predictably unpredictable twists. It’s vacuous but diverting in a seedy sort of way. (JR)… Read more »

All The Little Animals

The impressive directorial debut of Jeremy Thomasproducer of major films by Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima, and Nicolas Roeg, among othersis a compelling throwback to the emotional purity and directness of 19th-century melodrama and its various offshoots; though it isn’t as good as D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms or Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, these are the sort of pictures it calls to mind. The somewhat Dickensian plot, adapted by Eski Thomas (the producer-director’s wife) from a novel by the late Walker Hamilton, involves an intellectually challenged animal lover (Christian Bale) who flees from his evil stepfather (Daniel Benzali) in London after his mother’s death and an eccentric former bank clerk (John Hurt) he links up with on the road who devotes his life to burying animals killed by motorists. The unabashed depiction of characters so purely good or evil that their behavior virtually defies motivation demands a certain innocence from the viewer that is rarely solicited nowadays, but the film fully rewards it: Thomas has a wonderful feeling for landscape and a keen sense of storytelling that falters (and not by much) only when he overextends the plot’s suspenseful finale. This isn’t for everyone, but can be emphatically recommended to anyone suffering from a surfeit of cynicism at the movies.… Read more »

Mr. Zhao

A watershed in the history of Chinese cinema, this first feature (1998) directed by Lu Yue — the remarkable cinematographer of Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl and several recent features of Zhang Yimou, including Shanghai Triad — is an eye-opening comedy about adultery in contemporary Shanghai. Much of the dialogue is improvised by the talented actors — Shi Jingming as the husband, a professor of traditional Chinese medicine; Zhang Zhihua as his factory-worker wife; and Chen Yinan as his mistress and former student — and both the shooting style and the emotional directness of the performances suggest the filmmaking of John Cassavetes. Though this is unquestionably one of the key films of the 90s from mainland China, it unaccountably disappeared from sight after winning the Golden Leopard at the Locarno film festival in 1998, and as far as I know this [in August 1999] is its first commercial run. Viewers requiring the validation of the New York Times or the New Yorker before making their cultural decisions will therefore have to take a pass on this, and it will be their tough luck. (JR)… Read more »

Chill Factor

A military secret weapon that can obliterate everything in its path is intercepted by a couple of working-class stiffs (Skeet Ulrich and Cuba Gooding Jr.) in Montana and pursued by a disgruntled and scapegoated major (Peter Firth) who wants to make a zillion dollars by holding the world at ransom. This action-adventure movie shows the usual contempt for life, humanity, art, the audience, intelligence, characterization, and plot, and the usual affection for stunts, minor star turns, and cliches. The stunt work is pretty good, the brain work close to nonexistent. Directed by Hugh Johnson from a script by Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda; with David Paymer and Kevin J. O’Connor. (JR)… Read more »

The Muse

Like all of Albert Brooks’s features, this satire of Hollywood’s insularity is funny, with adroit comic performances from Sharon Stone and Jeff Bridges. But it’s difficult not to see it as a coarsening of Brooks’s rare conceptual talent as a chronicler of American mores. As always, his directing is impeccable, and his whiny performance is pretty much what you’d expect, but his script is fairly lazy by his usual standards. The plot concerns a Hollywood screenwriter (Brooks) who hires a muse with expensive tastes (Stone) to get him out of a career crisis, but the main source of humor is basically Hollywood myopia and all it entails. Andie MacDowell plays the hero’s wife, Bridges plays a fellow screenwriter, and there are a good many cameos by Hollywood notables to fill in the cracks. Monica Johnson, Brooks’s usual cowriter, helped with the script. (JR)… Read more »

Claude Chabrol, Or The Entomologist

I haven’t seen Andre Labarthe’s 1991 documentary about the French director and former film critic. But it’s part of the superb French TV series Filmmakers of Our Times, which has been around since the 60s, consisting of the best documentaries about filmmakers that I know, all in the form of interviews. Labarthe, who’s in charge of the series, used to be a critic for Cahiers du Cinema along with Chabrol, so this is bound to be interesting. (JR)… Read more »