Monthly Archives: October 1999

Poet Of The Wastes

Technical problems prevented me from viewing all of this charming first feature by Mohammad Ahmadi, written and produced by the great Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Salaam Cinema). But I saw enough to know that the festival’s claim that the film intends to steer absolutely clear of political commentary is inaccurate; an Iranian friend reports that even the script had problems with the censors. This is a satirical comedy about a hapless young garbage collector and two of the people on his route—a poet he wants to emulate and a woman he has a crush on—and it comments on questionable civil service exams and Iran’s high rate of unemployment. In Farsi with subtitles. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Felicia’s Journey

Atom Egoyan’s first major disappointment as writer-director, this isn’t so much uncharacteristic as archetypal, which may be part of the problem. An adaptation of William Trevor’s novel of the same title, the film replays such thematic staples of Egoyan as familial dysfunction, dark secrets, and video, but the overall blend seems both inadequately developed and warmed-over, even though Egoyan’s overall command of filmmaking remains as assured as ever. The plot centers on a penniless and pregnant Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy), in search of her departed boyfriend, who’s taken in by a catering manager (Bob Hoskins) at a factory in Birmingham, England. He’s the lonely son of a glamorous French woman (Arsinee Khanjian) who hosted a TV cooking show in the 50s. Rather than nothing being quite what it seems, everything seems to fall into place according to earlier Egoyan films, which suggests that you’re likelier to enjoy this one if you haven’t seen the others. (JR)… Read more »

Princess Mononoke

This folkloric animated epic (1997) — set in the 14th century but with ecological trimmings and occasional anachronisms such as hand grenades — was Japan’s all-time box office champ before Titanic. Hayao Miyazaki, who’s often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, directed, and what seems most fascinating about his two-hour movie as an alternative to American animation is the relative absence of anthropomorphism. Even when animals speak, lip sync is avoided; they seem to be communicating almost telepathically, and one seldom feels that they’re contradicting their animal natures. The animation works special kinds of wonders with clouds and mists (particular signifiers in Asian art) as well as moving water, while the violence–featuring blood, amputations, and beheadings — is quite different from what one would expect from a Disney cartoon. Predictably, Miramax’s English dubbing not only alters the plot but features such regional conceits as Billy Bob Thornton as a wily monk and a wolf girl (Claire Danes) who sounds like a Valley girl, but if you can swallow such crudities, the film’s storytelling and heartfelt pantheism are both impressive. Many of Miyazaki’s films are being screened by the Film Center as part of a retrospective on Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio; showing this week is My Neighbor Totoro (see separate listing).… Read more »

True Enough (BOYS DON’T CRY & THE STRAIGHT STORY)

From the October 22. 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boys Don’t Cry

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

With Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, and Jeannetta Arnette.

The Straight Story

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, James Cada, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The docudrama may be the key dramatic form of the 90s because of the extent to which its simplifications influence the way we make sense of the world around us. Not that we didn’t already have a habit of simplifying and therefore fictionalizing facts. There are perfectly good reasons most of us prefer to believe that one day in December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because her feet were killing her, thereby launching the civil rights movement. This story has a germ of truth, but Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had mapped out their basic strategy for the Montgomery bus boycott at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee well before this incident. Still, the more folkloric, more dramatic version of the episode is the one that sticks — and the one that’s repeated by people who want to explain the civil rights movement in more forcible, more legible terms.… Read more »

Black Cat, White Cat

There’s something almost wearying as well as exhilarating about the perpetual brilliance of Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Underground). As with some of Fellini’s late works, the energy and inventiveness, not to mention the juicy vulgarity, are so consistent that you feel you can slice into the material at almost any point. In this two-hour slam-bang farce about Gypsies living on the Danube and lorded over by two rival patriarchs, there’s plenty to cherish and enjoy (at least if you can put up with all the cynicism), but I was especially impressed by Bajram Severdzan, hilarious as a nouveau riche gangster. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, October 22 through 28. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Lifting the Veil

I’ve been speculating in this space over the past couple of weeks that, in spite of the efforts of much of the mainstream press, American isolationism may be declining–at least when it comes to world cinema. The evidence–apart from the impending opening of local art-movie venues and the current Chicago International Film Festival, now in its third and final week–includes the exciting non-American prizewinners at Cannes and Venice, a striking change from past years, bitterly contested or else studiously ignored by our more provincial reviewers, and the announced departure from the New York Times of its first-string film reviewer, Janet Maslin, a prime example of alienated labor when it comes to movies in general.

Another shining example of shrinking American isolationism is David O. Russell’s Hollywood war film Three Kings, which Lisa Alspector’s enthusiastic Reader review persuaded me to run out to see a couple of weeks ago. It’s a skeptical look at this country’s role in the gulf war that, for all its ideological ambivalence and stylistic difficulties, seems a more responsible and accurate reading of that war than any comparable movie made about the Vietnam war. Considering that so far it’s practically the only Hollywood film we’ve had about that war, the accomplishment seems even more impressive, and makes it an honorary foreign movie of sorts, even with all its action kicks.… Read more »

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: Jerry Lewis’s Masterpiece

It seems that I wrote (or completed) this in October 1999, for the American Movie Classics monthly magazine (I don’t recall which issue). — J.R.

 

The Nutty Professor (1963) — Jerry Lewis’s fourth and in some ways best constructed feature as writer-director-performer — is one of the finest versions of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story that we have, and not only because it happens to be the funniest. (It’s also the one with the best music: Les Brown’s band, and memorable versions of both “Stella by Starlight” and “That Old Black Magic”.) A good deal subtler than the raucous Eddie Murphy remake (1996), it illustrates the troubling perception that most of us prefer egotistical bullies to shy, sweet-tempered klutzes. It also provides us with an excellent opportunity for reassessing a multifaceted artist who has seldom received his due in this country.

Critical opinion has often described the overbearing Buddy Love, Lewis’s Mr. Hyde, as a reincarnation of Dean Martin, six years after the decisive breakup of the Martin and Lewis duo. Superficially this sounds like an ingenious notion, but in fact it misses the mark. Part of what’s so disturbing about Buddy Love — making his belated entrance about a third of the way through The Nutty Professor as a romantic stand-in for Julius Kelp, Lewis’s bumbling version of Dr.… Read more »

Being John Malkovich

This outrageous comic fantasy may not sustain its brilliance throughout its 112 minutes, but it keeps cooking for so much of that time that I don’t have many complaints. The first feature of both screenwriter/executive producer Charlie Kaufman (who’s written for several TV series) and director Spike Jonze (who’s directed commercials, music videos, and short films), it charts the complications that ensue when an out-of-work puppeteer (John Cusack) gets a filing job on the surrealistically cramped seventh and a half floor of an office building, where he discovers a hidden tunnel that allows its occupant to become actor John Malkovich (playing himself, natch) for 15 minutes before being ejected onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Things get even wilder when the filing clerk and his wife (Cameron Diaz as a pet-store employee) both get the hots for the same woman (Catherine Keener), who has comparable lust for the wife as long as she’s inside Malkovich. What’s great about this lunatic farce isn’t only its premises about sexual and professional identity but also the spirited way the actors and filmmakers flesh them out. With Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place. (JR)… Read more »

Crazy In Alabama

Apart from the settings and the jim crow laws, I didn’t much recognize my home state in this directorial debut of actor Antonio Banderas, adapted by Mark Childress from his own novel and set in 1965. But the movie eventually won my goodwill by fleshing out a couple of my pet notions: that Marilyn Monroe (whom Melanie Griffith’s lead performance repeatedly alludes to) had a kind of prefeminist will to power before pop culture could ever conceive of such a thing, and that some parallels between the civil rights movement and the feminist struggle are well worth considering. Griffith plays an abused housewife and overworked mother who kills her husband with rat poison shortly before the movie starts and flees to Hollywood to become an actress, while her nephew (Lucas Black) witnesses the murder of a young civil rights activist. This comedy-drama takes a while to arrive at what it has to say, but some of the performances kept me occupied in the meantime. With David Morse, Cathy Moriarty, Meat Loaf, Robert Wagner, Paul Mazursky, and a fancy turn toward the end by Rod Steiger. (JR)… Read more »

The Story Of Us

Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer try very hard and certainly give a lot to this brittle romantic comedy, directed by Rob Reiner, about a husband and wife who seem to hate each other after 15 years together. But the script by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson and Reiner’s direction of the secondary cast bristle with phoniness. There’s sitcom phoniness, the phoniness of imitating Woody Allen badly (cheap-shot therapist jokes based on attitudes rather than observations), and the phoniness of imitating Two for the Road even more ineptly (from the scattershot chronological structure to the obnoxious American tourists). Ultimately the lead performances lie buried in heaps of bad habits and strident conceits. If you disagree with me and like this, chances are you’ll find it cute. With Reiner, Tim Matheson, and Julie Hagerty, and cameos by Red Buttons and Jayne Meadows, among others. (JR)… Read more »

Fight Club

This exercise in mainstream masochism, macho posturing, and designer-grunge fascism (1999) is borderline ridiculous. But it also happens to be David Fincher’s richest movienot only because it combines the others (Alien3, Seven, The Game) with chunks of Performance, but also because it keeps topping its own giddy excesses. Adapted by Jim Uhls from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, this has somethingbut only somethingto do with a bored Edward Norton encountering a nihilistic doppelganger (Brad Pitt) who teaches him that getting your brains bashed out is fun. Though you’re barely allowed to disagree with him, your jaw is supposed to drop with admiring disbelief at the provocation, and the overall impression of complexity might easily be mistaken for the genuine article. In other words, this is American self-absorption at its finest. With Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, and Jared Leto. 139 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Straight Story

A welcome change of pace (1999) from David Lynch, based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a midwestern septuagenarian who rode 240 miles on a lawn mower to visit his estranged brother after the latter suffered a stroke. The wonderful Richard Farnsworth plays the lead, and he was clearly born for the part; the script is by John Roach and Lynch’s editor and coproducer, Mary Sweeney. Lynch’s imaginative and heartfelt direction falters only when he tries for some of his relatively familiar weirdo effects. Otherwise this is a highly affecting and suggestive spiritual odyssey with plenty of all-American trimmings and reflections about old age. If some of the imagery suggests very-high-level calendar art, Lynch’s use of the ‘Scope frame is even more attractive than in Blue Velvet, and the film’s reflective rhythms are haunting. With Sissy Spacek. G, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Boys Don’t Cry

Kimberly Peirce’s first feature (1999, R, 118 min.), written with Andy Bienan, tells the disturbing story of Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank)raped and murdered in late 1993 for impersonating a manas harrowingly effective agitprop against sexual intolerance and hate crime. It’s a film with all the earmarks of earlier work by American independent producer Christine Vachon (Poison, Swoon, Safe, I Shot Andy Warhol, Go Fish). In some ways the story is about class as much as sexuality, and within this framework the actors do a fine jobespecially Chloe Sevigny as Teena’s girlfriend Lana. (JR)… Read more »

Food Alert

Last week I made a couple of passing references to the Chicago International Film Festival’s lack of clout in acquiring what many of my colleagues and I believe are the most important foreign movies to have appeared this year, including Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained, and Claire Denis’ Le beau travail. Of course some colleagues–in particular ones who favor strong, easy to follow story lines over form, style, even vision–don’t consider these pictures important, but my excitement about them is shared by many people in the mainstream: Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum singled out the Kiarostami and Denis movies as major Toronto events, in print and on Roger Ebert’s TV show; Rosetta won the top prize at Cannes; and the New Yorker devoted a small spread to the star-studded Time Regained three months back.

Rosetta and Le beau travail have acquired U.S. distributors. So far The Wind Will Carry Us and Time Regained haven’t–yet their producers are every bit as resistant to Chicago festival screenings as the distributor of Rosetta. Why? Because if a distributor or potential distributor is already worried about how many viewers a movie will attract, it won’t help to siphon off a few hundred of them at festival screenings.… Read more »

The Limey

Many of Steven Soderbergh’s better films seem to exist in the shadow of their predecessors. For all its freshness, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his first feature, was a replay of many self-referential movies about movies dating from the 60s and 70s. The Underneath was a more direct remake, of the 40s noir Criss Cross, and it was an interesting variation rather than any sort of improvement. Yet part of what’s so good about The Limey (1999, 91 min.), a contemporary thriller starring Terence Stamp as an ex-con avenging the death of his daughter, is the way it evokes Point Blank, which is still John Boorman’s best movie. The complex play with time, the metaphysical ambiguity, the stylish wit and violence, and the cool sense of LA architecture all evoke that singular Lee Marvin vehicle. For that matter, a lot of flashback material about the hero as a young man comes straight out of Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967). But with or without a sense of where it all comes from, this is a highly enjoyable and offbeat thriller — better to my taste than Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, though similarly quirky in how it sets about telling a story.… Read more »