From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2000). — J.R.
Here’s one very sick and messed-up movie. As misogynistic as anything I’ve seen in ages, it’s tricked up with enough fancy cinematography (by Guy Dufaux) to guarantee it sub-Hitchcockian credentials of the sort that some reviewers eagerly hand out to Brian De Palma. A surveillance specialist for the British secret service (Ewan McGregor) who’s haunted by the loss of his wife and little girl years earlier obsessively tracks a psychopathic murderer (Ashley Judd) across the U.S. The first couple of times he and we watch her take her clothes off through his surveillance equipment, grisly murders follow; after that we get more grisly stuff but less cheesecake. Writer-director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), adapting a novel by Marc Behm, shows how much he likes The Conversation, Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, and Basic Instinct by serving up pastiches of them all and hoping everything somehow fits together. (To all appearances, the plot was resolved with a coin flip.) According to this movie’s view of femininity, Genevieve Bujold as a reform school official is womanly, therefore evil, and K.D. Lang as a secret service contact is androgynous, therefore OK.… Read more »
Jane Campion still has a remarkable eye for framing and imagining, but on the sad evidence of this scrambled free-for-all (1999), written with her sister Anna Campion, she’s taken leave of about half her senses. The setup is promising: a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) becomes smitten with an Indian guru, and her bourgeois family, after luring her back home with a lie that her father is dying, hires an American specialist (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her in the outback. Naturally the two of them get involved, and naturally this becomes a monumental battle of wills and sexes. As in Campion’s The Piano there’s a lot of wildness qualifying as a kind of politically correct porn, decked out on this occasion with dazzling visual effects that begin with the title written in smoke. But all sorts of questions go unanswered, and there’s little of the density found in Campion’s early work; this is mainly smoke, not fire. R, 114 min. (JR)… Read more »
John Frankenheimer does an excellent job of directing an extremely dubious thriller script by Ehren Kruger, about an ex-con (Ben Affleck) forced by a group of gun smugglers (including Gary Sinise and Clarence Williams III) into helping in the heist of a roadside casino on Christmas Eve. What’s dubious about this is the contribution of the usual studio thinking: the plot has more twists than a rattlesnake, at least three twists too many if one is supposed to accept any of the characters as human. (As two who couldn’t possibly be, Charlize Theron and James Frain prove as malleable as they come.) I had a pretty good time with this until the end, when I felt so soiled by the filmmakers’ cynicism and the characters’ gratuitous viciousness that I wanted to take a bath. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »
It takes spectacularly bad judgment to make Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, and Sharon Stone all look clunky and adrift. (Catherine Keener, a relative newcomer, emerges relatively unscathed, but then again she’s given much less to do.) Such misjudgment is usually the work of a committee, and even though this film was allegedly directed by one individual (Matthew Warchus), adapting with David Nicholls the work of another individual (a Sam Shepard play about a horse-racing scam), I can’t tell how much Warchus and/or Shepard can be blamed for the terminally awkward flashbacks, the unconvincing characters, the heavy-handed dramaturgy, and the overall dullness of what’s on-screen. Insofar as they’re allowed to be members of the committee, I assume they’re at least partially to blame, but it’s the whole contemporary system of picture making that probably has to be faulted for such an extravagant waste of resources. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 2000). — J.R.
Even when his work is at its most contrived, which it certainly is here, writer-director Ron Shelton is the best purveyor of jock humor around. He extracts it endlessly from this comedy about two boxers (Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas), best friends but romantic rivals , who are driving to Las Vegas with their mutual girl (Lolita Davidovich) to fight each other before the Mike Tyson main event. Instead of providing closure the movie just evaporates, but Shelton’s wit and sass keep it flowing, after a fashion. Plot is nothing and character is everything in this sort of setup, and speaking as someone who would rather watch paint spill than blood, I was glued to my seat during the protracted, fairly gruesome climactic slugfest. With Lucy Liu, Robert Wagner, Tom Sizemore, Richard Masur, and lots of pointless cameos of stars glimpsed in ringside seats. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2000). — J.R.
This 1972 release is the most underrated of all Billy Wilder comedies and arguably the one that comes closest to the sweet mastery and lilting grace of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. Jack Lemmon arrives at a small resort in Italy to claim the body of his late father, who perished in a car accident, and there he meets Juliet Mills, whose mother died in the same accident and, as it turns out, had been having an affair with the father. The development of Mills and Lemmon’s own romance over various bureaucratic complications is gradual and leisurely paced; at 144 minutes, this is an experience to roll around on your tongue. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond adapted a relatively obscure play by Samuel A. Taylor, and the lovely music is by Carlo Rustichelli; with Clive Revill and Edward Andrews. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, January 15, 3:30, 312-443-3737
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From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2000); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
With Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet, and Bernard Marbaix.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
I saw Rosetta three weeks ago, and haven’t recovered from it since. In fact, I didn’t see any film since the Dardennes’, except films for work. It moves me to the heart of my heart, this film about the necessity of life, the impossibility of morality, the soil of human experience. [A teaching colleague] told me that he couldn’t watch it because he thought too much about [Robert Bresson's] Mouchette, but precisely, it’s at last Mouchette today, our Mouchette, the one we deserve, without any heaven and any transcendence. Her scream, ‘Mama! Y’a d’la boue! Y’a d’la boue!’ ['Mama! It's full of mud! It's full of mud!'] haunts me, I can’t forget it, it’s exactly the despair of being in life without any pathos, any margin, just real life in the immediacy of the impulse. — E-mail from film critic Nicole Brenez
The 80s practically ended with the euphoric takeover of Tiananmen Square by more than a million demonstrators led by students, many with access to fax machines, though a brutal government crackdown followed.… Read more »
The Tree, the Mayor, and the Media Center
What a pity that one of Eric Rohmer’s best features should have fallen between the cracks and never received a U.S. release. But what a piece of luck that the Museum of Contemporary Art should launch its series “Living Spaces: Films on Architecture” with a swell pair of French features: Jean-Luc Godard’s multilingual Contempt (see separate listing), which features a famous villa designed by writer Curzio Malaparte, and Rohmer’s conservative comedy of manners (1993), receiving its Chicago premiere. A provincial mayor (Pascal Greggory) gets a government grant to build a media center, and the film’s gentle mockery of the socialist politician, some of it articulated by his own mistress (Arielle Dombasle), shows how Rohmer must have influenced Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). Yet Rohmer exceeds even Stillman’s audacity by turning this wry fable into a musical in its closing minutes; nothing he does here is predictable, yet in retrospect it all seems logical and balanced. With Fabrice Luchini; a 35-millimeter print in stereo will be shown. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, Sunday, January 16, 4:00, 312-397-4010… Read more »
In my January 7 piece on the ten best movies of 1999, I incorrectly implied that Divorce Iranian Style first played locally at the Film Center. In fact it surfaced originally at the 1998 Chicago International Film Festival, where, festival programmer Jim Healy informs me, it tied for best documentary. Apologies to the festival for the error. Since it also had an extended run at the Film Center in early 1999, it still qualifies for my list.
Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
Luis Galvao Teles’s film about five middle-aged Lisbon friends is Portuguese-made with French dialogue, making it in theory the worst kind of Europudding. But in practice it’s a stirring vehicle for five talented actressesCarmen Maura, Miou-Miou, Paris opera star Guesch Patti, Marisa Berenson, and Marthe Keller. For my taste, this is juicier and more enjoyable as a movie about aging than All About My Mother, and the social milieu it encompasses is considerably wider: Maura plays a TV news journalist, Miou-Miou a literature professor, Patti an actress and singer, Keller a caterer, and Berenson the owner of a chic beauty salon where the others hang out. Collectively they conjure up a substantial worldand incidentally act up a storm. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 2000). — J.R.
I find critics’ near unanimity about hits and favorites a bit of a bore, even when I agree with some of their choices. Disputes are far more interesting, because they make artistic and political differences clearer and more meaningful. Perhaps because I’m drawn to cinema that can theoretically change the world — and me — I can’t see much purpose in commemorating movies whose prime aim seems to be to make me forget the world outside the theater. The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and an evening of channel surfing, no matter how enjoyable either might be, are of roughly equal irrelevance.
Nineteen ninety-nine was a pivotal year in movies, clarifying where a lot of people stood and who they were. This kind of definition was encouraged by the existential stocktaking that came with the end of the millennium — the compiling of more best-film lists than usual (of the 90s, of the century) and more generalized meditating on the state of the art and the medium. (After finishing my own best-of-the-90s list for the last issue of the year, I discovered that all but one of the movies had an interesting trait in common: they hadn’t been reviewed in the New Yorker.… Read more »
Same Old Song
To preserve and present the best world cinema, France has the Cinematheque Francaise and England has the British Film Institute; we’ve got the American Film Institute, which doesn’t even have a clue about the best Hollywood movies. Consequently most younger American viewers have never seen a film by Alain Resnais, probably the greatest living French filmmaker, who’s never made an indifferent or unadventurous film and who’s much more talented and innovative than Francois Truffaut. From Resnais’ first three features, all masterpieces–Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963)–to dazzling later works–Stavisky (1974), Providence (1977), Mon oncle d’Amerique (1980), Melo (1986)–he’s remained a master. On connait la chanson (1997), a more accurate translation of which might be “I Recognize the Tune,” was inspired by British screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven); its characters frequently break into lip-synched French pop songs, which serve as cross-references to their moods and aren’t always bound by gender. (When Resnais made similar use of French film clips in Mon oncle d’Amerique, contemporary actress Nicole Garcia was cross-referenced with Cocteau’s actor Jean Marais.) A comedy about real estate and class differences, Same Old Song was the biggest hit of Resnais’ career in France; it’s less popular among viewers unfamiliar with the music, but even if you can’t follow all the nuances, this is fun and different and at times mysterious (periodically revealing Resnais’ surrealist roots), and it superbly captures Paris in the 90s.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.
A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
Alain Resnais, probably the greatest living French filmmaker, has never made an indifferent or unadventurous film, and he’s much more talented and innovative than Francois Truffaut. On connait la chanson (1997, 120 min.), a more accurate translation of which might be I Recognize the Tune, was inspired by British screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven); its characters frequently break into lip-synched French pop songs, which serve as cross-references to their moods and aren’t always bound by gender. (When Resnais made similar use of French film clips in Mon oncle d’Amerique, contemporary actress Nicole Garcia was cross-referenced with Cocteau’s actor Jean Marais.) A comedy about real estate and class differences, Same Old Song was the biggest hit of Resnais’ career in France, superbly capturing Paris in the 90s; it’s less popular among viewers unfamiliar with the music, but even if you can’t follow all the nuances, this is fun and different and at times mysterious (periodically revealing Resnais’ surrealist roots). Written by and costarring the talented couple Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, who previously scripted and acted in Un air de famille (and wrote Resnais’ previous two features), this also has graceful performances by Resnais regulars Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, and Andre Dussollier.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
This vulgar Billy Wilder comedy scandalized the Legion of Decency and large segments of the American public when it came out in 1964. At the time Wilder pointed out that the film is about human dignity and the sanctity of marriage, but its undisguised contempt for the American hinterlands and the success ethic makes the sexual element seem dirtier than it actually is. Dean Martin plays a carousing parody of himself, stranded in the godforsaken town of Climax, Nevada, while a desperate songwriter (Ray Walston), hoping to sell him a tune, tries to get him shacked up with a prostitute (Kim Novak) impersonating the songwriter’s wife (Felicia Farr). This restoration includes the original ending, which originally played only in Europe, followed by the forced ending that played in the U.S. Both Martin and Novak are at their near best, and the undertone of small-town desperation in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is effectively captured by Walston and his sidekick, Cliff Osmond. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope. 126 min. (JR)