Quentin Tarantino’s cameraman, Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, wrote and directed this autobiographical first feature (1998) about his early teens in Beirut–set in 1975, during the onset of the country’s civil war–and cast his younger brother Rami as himself. In fact, Doueiri scores with every member of his wonderful cast, which consists of nonprofessionals in the child roles and seasoned veterans playing the grown-ups. This is one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen, largely because the characters are so full-bodied and believable without falling into predictable patterns. The excellent score is by Stewart Copeland. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 31 through April 6.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
If you can put up with all the archness and self-consciousness—there’s quite a bit of both—this is an enjoyable romantic comedy (2000) about a pop music junkie (John Cusack) in Wicker Park who runs an old-fashioned record store and can’t seem to sustain a long-term relationship. Cusack joined forces with fellow producers D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink as well as Scott Rosenberg on the script, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s English novel that transposes settings with ease, and director Stephen Frears keeps things simmering. Two pluses: the humor about male neurosis doesn’t try to remind you of Woody Allen at every turn, and the Chicago settings and atmosphere are made to seem relatively cutting edge for a change, rather than appropriate only for car chases. With Jack Black and Lisa Bonet. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »
Writer-director James Toback manages to combine the worst traits of his own braggadocio style of formless filmmaking with those of Henry Jaglom and Robert Altman, in an extravagant mess that awaits exegesis from Pauline Kael’s disciples regarding its Dostoyevskian qualities. Expect a lot of improvisation or semi-improvisation from the actors and just as much crosscutting from the director. Wealthy white teenage girls in New York lust after hip-hop black crime, a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields) with a gay husband (Robert Downey Jr.) follows them around, and the gay husband comes on to Mike Tyson, who plays himself. The point is to create a few desultory sparks, all of them unrehearsed, and land a piece of promo in the New Yorker’s The Talk of the Town. Among the other actors are Oli Power Grant, Ben Stiller, Knicks guard Allan Houston, Claudia Schiffer, Stacy Edwards, and Toback himself. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »
If you assumed, as I did, that this feature by Tom Tykwer (1997, 122 min.) followed his monstrously successful and seemingly less personal Run Lola Run, you’d be wrong. An odd, ambitious melodrama about two couples who share an Alpine villa in scenic Berchtesgaden, this is very much a rural film, and though it’s every bit as striking visually and self-consciously contrived in terms of storytelling as Lola, it’s a lot likelier to leave you querulous. A translator (Floriane Daniel) becomes involved with a ski instructor (Heino Ferch) and her housemate, a nurse (Marie-Lou Sellem) who becomes involved with a film projectionist (Ulrich Matthes); there’s also a local farmer (Josef Bierbichler) whose daughter is critically injured in a car accident in the film’s opening moments. None of these characters is standard issue, and Tykwer works overtime with his ‘Scope framing, elaborate color coding, and metaphysical thematics to make their interactions seem significant, and at times erotic as well. I can’t yet decide whether the film works or not, but it certainly held me for its full two hours. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 2000). — J.R.
Waking the Dead
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Keith Gordon
Written by Robert Dillon
With Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Molly Parker, Janet McTeer, Paul Hipp, Sandra Oh, and Hal Holbrook.
I can’t make any great claims for Keith Gordon’s fourth feature as a director — a tragic love story that might be described as a political allegory, limited by the affective range of its lead actor (Billy Crudup), who plays a smarmy politician, and by the smudgy articulation of some secondary details. Yet the movie has a quality and intensity of feeling that provoke respect and a sense of fellowship — something that makes me cherish some of its attributes.
I can cite only one unequivocal reason for seeing Waking the Dead, and that’s Jennifer Connelly, who plays Sarah Williams — a Catholic activist who, when the story opens, seemingly dies when the car she and two pro-Allende Chileans are driving through Minneapolis is bombed. What makes Connelly so remarkable isn’t her character’s radicalism but her capacity to keep the character fresh every time she appears and to leave a lingering impression that makes the hero’s (and the movie’s) sense of loss acute.… Read more »
An unlikely 70s romance between a Catholic activist (Jennifer Connelly) working with Chileans and a young mainstream liberal politician (Billy Crudup) ends when she’s killed in a car bombing, but he can’t shake her memory. Keith Gordon’s haunting and heartfelt feature, adapted from a Scott Spencer novel by Robert Dillon, may be rough around the edges, and the allegorical and political aspects of the story won’t be to everyone’s taste, yet Connelly’s unshowy performance is so sensational that it makes up for lots of problems. The story ricochets between the 70s and 80s with such purity of emotion that the storytelling never falters, even when some of the secondary characters fail to convince. Jodie Foster served as executive producer, and she and Gordon should both be commended for getting behind an offbeat project of this kind. (JR)… Read more »
Alan Berliner’s essayistic documentary (1996) about his crotchety father, his relationship with him, and family memories in general is a wonderful piece of work that’s every bit as entertaining, thoughtful, and distinctive as Intimate Stranger (1992), Berliner’s earlier feature about his maternal grandfather. This long-overdue Chicago premiere is well worth checking out. St. Xavier Univ. McGuire Hall, 3700 W. 103rd St., Friday and Saturday, March 17 and 18, 7:00, 773-298-3193.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). — J.R.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.
Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.
Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons. When something goes wrong during a hit, Louie’s gang decides to wipe out Ghost Dog, who retaliates in order to defend himself.… Read more »
Try to imagine a noncomic remake of Dr. Strangelove in which the title hero becomes the voice of reason; hold that thought and imagine a remake of the gulf war in which Saddam Hussein’s son invades Kuwait and the acting U.S. president (Kevin Pollak) threatens to drop a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. You’ve still only got the beginnings of what makes this stagy thriller, set in a snowbound roadside diner, so repellent. According to Rod Lurie, the onetime film critic who wrote and directed this, nuking Baghdad may be questionable because the site was once the Garden of Eden, but not because people happen to live there; it even becomes a brilliant strategic macho move if the victims are incapable of retaliating. The fact that this movie functions reasonably well as a suspense thriller only makes it more vile, as do such ideological escape clauses as the black woman who acts as the president’s top adviser and the redneck who shows his true class colors by calling Iraqis sand niggers. Foreigners who argue that Americans are Neanderthal savages can point to this movie as persuasive evidence. With Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Sean Astin. (JR)… Read more »
I’ve never been much of a Julia Roberts fan, but I have to admit that director Steven Soderbergh coaxes a very lively performance out of her in this docudrama, which intermittently reminds me of Silkwood (1983). Roberts plays a young divorced mother and former beauty queen who rounds up 600 plaintiffs to sue the power company that’s been contaminating the water. The script by Susannah Grant is standard-issue liberal feel-good fodder that in former decades might have been directed by Martin Ritt; Soderbergh deals with it respectfully and effectively without ever transcending its generic limitations. With Albert Finney as the heroine’s boss and Aaron Eckhart as her biker lover. 130 min. (JR)… Read more »
I seem to be in a distinct minority in regarding Brian De Palma as a tacky blowhard and unimaginative plagiaristPauline Kael places him above Alfred Hitchcock, who she apparently feels lacked the proper trashy exuberance, and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema recently concluded that Carlito’s Way was the greatest film of the 90s. But if I had to select a recent De Palma movie that validated my own bias, I’d opt for this ludicrous compost of derivative SF and insincere soap opera, which begins with a spaceship pilfered from 2001, ends with a New Age epiphany out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and features a lot of bad acting and celestial choirs in between. Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, and Lowell Cannon are credited with the clumsy script, and the teary-eyed actors include Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, and Jerry O’Connell. There are a few pretty good design effects en route, but not enough to compensate for all the embarrassments. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 2000). — J.R.
A Humble Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Alexander Sokurov.
I’ve seen at least a dozen of Alexander Sokurov’s works, but I’ve had a rough time getting a clear fix on him. For one thing, I didn’t recall having seen either A Lonely Man’s Voice (1978), his first feature, or The Second Circle (1990), yet when I checked I found I’d written reviews of both a decade ago. Is my brain a sieve? Or is it that many of Sokurov’s works are like passing mists on the verge of evaporating? Like his late mentor Andrei Tarkovsky, Sokurov is a mystical master of indeterminate zones — sometimes making it impossible to determine whether a shot is in color or black-and-white, whether it’s showing an interior or exterior, and whether it represents inner or external realities. So much uncertainty can make a film hard to remember.
For another thing, Sokurov is extremely prolific as both a filmmaker and a video artist — the only filmography I have available, dating from early 1991, includes 20 items — yet much of his career remains undocumented. According to film historian Nicholas Galichenko, Sokurov isn’t even mentioned in the 1987 Soviet film encyclopedia Kino, even though — or is it because?… Read more »
Carmen Maura stars as a housewife in flight from her well-to-do family who convinces a Portuguese video and CD salesman to give her a lift to Portugal before they catch up with her. This 1999 Spanish film teases a lot of intrigue from the family’s involvement in some sort of business corruption, and the mutual enmity and nastiness between family members is as thick as anything in middle-period Claude Chabrol, though not nearly as interesting. On the other hand, director Antonio Hernandez’s ‘Scope compositions are so inventive and engaging that this action thriller held my attention long after I ceased caring about any of the characters. (JR)… Read more »
A teenage girl (Ayesha Dharkar) from an unnamed country trains herself to perform a suicidal act of terrorism in a 1998 Indian feature by director-cowriter-cinematographer Santosh Sivan, not to be confused with films of the same title from the Soviet Union (1991) and Egypt (1994). The ideological reasons for the heroine’s project aren’t divulged, so I guess we’re supposed to be fascinated simply by the fanaticism of her will, doubts and all. I wasn’t, despite many brooding close-ups, arty pacing, beautiful settings, and alternately sappy and melodramatic music. In Tamil with subtitles. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
Craig Baldwin seems to have been compulsively remaking the same movie over the past decade, an experimental found-footage compilation that dovetails as many technological conspiracy theories as possible. Each time he does a better job; this delirious 1999 feature is better to my mind than either Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991) or Sonic Outlaws (1995), and it makes extensive use of Baldwin’s own footage, as did O No Coronado! (1992). But whether there’s a corresponding growth in lucidity is another matter. All his movies simultaneously mock and indulge in paranoid ranting, and sorting out the parodic strands isn’t always easy; when I heard Baldwin speak about his new movie recently in Austin, I was happy to discover that he’s a lot more lucid, politically speaking, than both his films and many of his postmodernist champions, so viewers who turn up for this screening should definitely stick around to hear him talk about it afterward. At the very least his extensive use of kinescopes and other campy 50s materials remains fascinatingly suggestive. (JR)… Read more »