Monthly Archives: May 2000

Love’s Labour’s Lost

From the Chicago Reader (May 29, 2000). — J.R.

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Whether Kenneth Branagh deserves to be regarded as the successor of Laurence Olivier — or even Franco Zeffirelli — when it comes to Shakespeare is far from settled, but this misguided version of one of the Bard’s best comedies strongly suggests he’s the successor of Ed Wood when it comes to musicals. Set in 1939, on the eve of World War II, his feeble attempt to do a 30s musical is so poorly conceived, staged, and edited that it nearly rivals Mae West’s last opus, Sextette. (Peter Bogdanovich’s reviled At Long Last Love is a masterpiece by comparison.) The only performer who emerges unscathed from the clunkiness is dancer Adrian Lester, and so many of Shakespeare’s lines are hacked away to make room for songs by Porter and Berlin that the play is enfeebled in the bargain. Others in the cast include Alessandro Nivola, Matthew Lillard, Natascha McElhone, Alicia Silverstone, Nathan Lane, Carmen Ejogo, Emily Mortimer, and Stefania Rocca. 93 min. (JR)

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City of Sadness

This remarkable and beautiful 160-minute family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Goodbye South, Goodbye, Flowers of Shanghai) begins in 1945, when Japan ended its 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan, and concludes in 1949, when mainland China became communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreated to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) storytelling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this 1989 drama is largely a meditation on communication itself, and appropriately enough it was the first Taiwanese film to use direct sound. It’s also one of the supreme masterworks of the contemporary cinema and, as the first feature of Hou’s magisterial trilogy about Taiwan during the 20th century (followed in 1993 by The Puppetmaster and in 1995 by Good Men, Good Women), an excellent launch to the Film Center’s eight-film Hou retrospective, which runs over the next three weeks. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, June 1, 7:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Mission: Impossible 2

This is obviously a sequel, but whether its true predecessor is Mission: Impossible, Face/Off, or Dr. No is less certain. Like its predecessor, it stars coproducer Tom Cruise, costars Ving Rhames, was written at least partially by prestigious hack Robert Towne (who takes solo credit here), and whimsically glorifies the CIA as a band of efficient sophisticates devoted to inventing new ways for its employees to perform fancy stunts. Like Face/Off, it was directed by John Woo, features a fair amount of sadistic cruelty, and dispenses so many rubber masks to allow the characters to swap identities that no hero or villain winds up carrying any moral weight at all. (How they sometimes manage to imitate one another’s voices is poorly explained, but credibility is so thin throughout that this movie only came into its own when it became available on video and thus truly disposable.) Like Dr. No, it’s a piece of nostalgia for colonialism (the main urban setting is Sydney), Playboy, Cary Grant, high-tech gadgets, and apocalyptic fantasies, and if Cruise makes an unconvincing Bond when compared to Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins is perfectly cast as Cruise’s chief, and Thandie Newtonas a thief enlisted by the CIA to fuck her former boyfriend, villain Dougray Scottarguably makes an even better babe than Ursula Andress.… Read more »

Passion Of Mind

At first glance, this Hollywood feature produced by cowriter Ron Bass (Rain Man, When a Man Loves a Woman) and directed by Alain Berliner (Ma vie en rose) deals with the same theme as Shattered Image (1998), a mainstream feature written by Duane Poole and directed by Raul Ruiz, in which a Seattle hit woman dreams she’s a newlywed honeymooning in the Caribbean, who dreams in turn she’s a Seattle hit woman, etc. In Passion of Mind, a widow living with her two daughters in a French village and being courted by a novelist (Stellan Skarsgard) dreams she’s a New York literary agent being courted by an accountant (William Fichtner), and vice versa. But in fact the two movies are polar opposites. The two women in Shattered Image are both played by Anne Parillaud, and the point of the exercise isn’t psychological but a Ruizian mind fuck; in Passion of Mind, both women are played by Demi Moore (who isn’t bad, by the way), and the story is designed as a psychological puzzle, offering two romantic love stories for the price of one. The Ruiz film is fun but leads nowhere; Passion of Mind is slick and effective escapism with a touch of poetry (a la The Sixth Sense) that left me vaguely dissatisfied once the mystery was supposedly resolved.… Read more »

Hamlet

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.

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It’s fitting that the most existential of plays should function as a kind of test, and fortunate that the first Michael Almereyda picture to get full mainstream exposure should also turn out to be his best to date. But what’s being tested isn’t either Shakespeare or Almereyda but the present moment: that is, the film asks how and how much we’re capable of living in the world Shakespeare wrote about. Wittily and tragically updating the play’s action to corporate America in general and New York in particular, Almereyda is no Orson Welles, but he begins to seem like one when he’s castigated for not doing his Shakespeare like Kenneth Branagh; the censure recalls all the times square and professional Laurence Olivier was used as a reproach to Welles’s hip “amateurism.” This is gloriously amateurish, the way all of Almereyda’s best movies are, so it’s rewarding to see how Julia Stiles’s Ophelia harks back to Suzy Amis in Almereyda’s Twister, how some of the intimate interiors recall Another Girl Another Planet (his second-best movie), and how the use of video as a kind of Greek chorus to the action, an Almereyda specialty, bears special fruit in a postmodernist climate where “To be or not to be” is recited in the action section of a Blockbuster and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, better than you’d expect) lards his video production of The Mousetrap with all sorts of found footage.… Read more »

All You Need Is Cash [SMALL TIME CROOKS]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.

Small Time Crooks

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch.

Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen’s 29th feature in 31 years. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that all the major developments in his work to date took place during the period around Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977), when he transformed himself from a gagman with a clunky mise en scene into a fairly graceful filmmaker, and the period around Husbands and Wives (1992), when he bravely discarded grace and went on a brief adventure. It led to the relaxed candor of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and the sour gallows humor of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), before collapsing into the banality and facility of Mighty Aphrodite (1995), with its Whore With a Heart of Gold.

September (1987) was an embarrassment, and other low points, the moments when Allen’s energy and invention flagged the most, include A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998). Small Time Crooks never attains the diffidence of the last three, but at times it comes awfully close.… Read more »

Small Time Crooks

This isn’t Woody Allen at his nadir (cf A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, September, Shadows and Fog, and Celebrity), but there are moments when this comedy threatens to die of anemia. Featuring Allen and Tracey Ullman as a whiny working-class couple who decide to rob a bank, it starts off, like most Allen pictures, by emulating a European art-house picture of his youthin this case Big Deal on Madonna Street (a much funnier picture about a failed bank heist). After Ullman’s flair for baking cookies unexpectedly makes the couple rich, Allen falls into one of his most tired story ideas, the vulgar nouveau riche heroine who tries to buy her way to culturerepresented in this movie, to show you how desperate things are, by Hugh Grant. The others in the cast have a better time; Elaine May as Ullman’s cousin is especially funny. With Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, George Grizzard, Jon Lovitz, and Elaine Stritch. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Set Me Free

Lea Pool’s sensitive coming-of-age feature (1999, 94 minutes), set in and around Montreal in 1963, is apparently autobiographical in inspiration. The 13-year-old heroine (Karine Vanasse), who has her first period while visiting her grandmother in the opening sequence, is the illegitimate daughter of a struggling Jewish writer (Miki Manojlovic) and a Catholic who works as a seamstress to help support the family (Pascale Bussieres); her unlikely role model is the prostitute heroine played by Anna Karina in Godard’s Vivre sa vie, and her sexual stirrings gravitate toward both her older brother and a female classmate, who also attract each other. Nicely acted and inflected, this is a very fresh piece of work. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 12 through 18. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Resnais as Regionalist

Recovering this piece, dated March 27, 2000, from an old floppy disk, I no longer have any recollection of who commissioned it or for what publication. [November 2012 postscript: It was the May-June 2000 issue of Film Comment.] — J.R.

Keeping up with Resnais hasn’t been easy. One can find all his recent features on SECAM videos in France, but not the original English versions of I Want to Go Home (1989) or Gershwin (1992). Even Smoking/ No Smoking (1993) — a French adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a cycle of eight English plays — is available only without subtitles, in a fancy one-box set.

Who would have dreamed that Resnais — supremely international with Hiroshima, mon amour in the 50s, Last Year at Marienbad and La guerre est finie in the 60s, Providence in the 70s — would have wound up a French regionalist in the 80s and 90s, culminating in Same Old Song? This outcome is obviously more a matter of fate than design. It’s not as if Resnais has stood still; the recent features show little of the emotional interiority of his earlier work, veering closer to farce than anything preceding them. Why haven’t most American audiences been able to chart these changes?… Read more »

Yi Yi

Edward Yang’s most accessible movie (2000) follows three generations of a contemporary Taipei family from a wedding to a funeral, and while it takes almost three hours to unfold, not a moment seems gratuitous. Working with nonprofessional actors, Yang coaxes a standout performance from Wu Nien-jen as N.J., a middle-aged partner in a failing computer company who hopes to team up with a Japanese game designer and who has a secret rendezvous in Tokyo with a girl he jilted 30 years earlier; other major characters include the hero’s eight-year-old son, teenage daughter, spiritually traumatized wife, comatose mother-in-law, and debt-ridden brother-in-law. The son, who becomes obsessed with photographing what people can’t see, may come closest to being a mouthpiece for Yang, who seems to miss nothing as he interweaves shifting viewpoints and poignant emotional refrains, creating one of the richest families in modern movies. In Mandarin with subtitles. 173 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thunderbirds Are Go

Adapted from the TV series Thunderbirds, this 1966 British feature anticipated The Dark Crystal with its all-marionette cast. David Lane directed.… Read more »

Keepers Of The Frame

Despite a welcome attention to the brutal facts of celluloid deterioration, Mark McLaughlin’s 1999 documentary about film preservation, written with producer Randy Gitsch, is basically Movie Restoration 101, a fund-raiser with a lot of emphasis on the sociological and historical reasons for this activity and almost none at all on the aesthetic reasonsor the aesthetic issues raised by different kinds of restoration and/or revision of primary materials. The fact that the interview subjects include Forrest J. Ackerman, Alan Alda, Stan Brakhage, Herb Jeffries, Roddy McDowell, Leonard Maltin, and Debbie Reynolds, along with a few techies, archivists, and bureaucrats, gives a pretty good idea of the spread involved. But critical perspectives on film restoration are few and far between: the overall message is that it’s a good thing, even though we don’t get a clear position about how such an activity might be carried out well or badly. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Divine Trash

If this country were a more sensible place, John Waters would be hosting the Tonight Show. Barring such a possibility, Steve Yeager’s entertaining 1997 documentary about the making of Waters’s first midnight-movie hit, Pink Flamingos (1972), has the advantages of a proud Baltimore perspective and interviews with Jeanine Basinger, Steve Buscemi, Hal Hartley, J. Hoberman, Jim Jarmusch, the Kuchar brothers, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jonas Mekas, Paul Morrissey, the local film censor, countless cast and family members, and Waters himself. (As a closing title tartly points out, only Kenneth Anger and Russ Meyer declined to appear.) This affectionate piece of historiography snubs practically everything after Pink Flamingosincluding my two favorites, Female Trouble and Hairspraybut it’s so deliciously exhaustive about Waters’s humble beginnings that I can’t really complain. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Beau Travail

A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphereand, more subtly, the womenof Africa like few filmmakers before her.… Read more »

Devil Ant

This video by former Golden Gloves boxer David the Rock Nelson sounds like an even lower-rent version of the guerrilla film produced in Bowfinger. Nelson captures famous individuals in publicincluding Hillary Clinton, Roger Corman, and Svengooliefor use in this impromptu monster flick, parts of which were shot in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Pittsburgh. (JR)… Read more »