Monthly Archives: July 2000

Hollow Man

Paul Verhoeven’s well-paced and watchable action thriller, about a scientist (Kevin Bacon) working for the Pentagon who makes himself invisible, is less of a social satire than his other recent features (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers)despite the glancing suggestion in Andrew W. Marlowe’s screenplay that the scientist’s ugly mischief with his discovery is nothing compared to what the Pentagon’s might be. In fact, this is an old-fashioned exercise in horror-suspense, with first-rate special effects and, as is usual with Verhoeven, an attractive and stylish mise en scene that verges on hyperrealism in its clarity of line. Even when the film reverts to formula, which is fairly often, it does so with polish. It’s also recognizably Verhoevenian in its graceful storytelling (apart from a few holes in the central premise), its appreciation of strong-willed women (top honors to Elisabeth Shue and Kim Dickens) and erotic power struggles, and its dark humor about adolescent males (Bacon is an absolute creep from the beginning). It’s also, like his other films, the work of a macabre moralist who’s fascinated by the shape of our worst impulses, though it’s not terribly interesting on the subject this time around. With Josh Brolin, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.… Read more »

Coyote Ugly

Another piece of phony uplift from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who brought us Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and, more recently, Armageddon and Gone in Sixty Seconds. This onea sort of Flashdance/Urban Cowboy concoction with a dash of Cocktailclearly doesn’t believe its own jive for a second. It’s about a songwriter (Piper Perabo) from New Jersey who comes to the big city and winds up shaking her ass at a raucous country-western bar, meanwhile dating an Australian dishwasher (Adam Garcia) and trying to convince her widower father (John Goodman, trying hard to be sincere) that he shouldn’t feel ashamed about her job. David McNally directed a script by Gina Wendkos. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Backwaters [SHOWER]

From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2000). — J.R.

Shower

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Zhang Yang

Written by Liu Fen Dou, Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan, and Cai Xiang Jun

With Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu, He Zheng, Zhang Jin Hao, Lao Lin, and Lao Wu.

In these pages last week I wondered whether adapting Marcel Proust was the best way for the talented Raul Ruiz to spend his time. Later I heard from some colleagues who write for suburban papers that their editors had forbidden them to review Time Regained — a standard form of censorship that made me wonder whether my expressing misgivings would encourage the editors to believe they were justified. Especially stomach turning was the spurious reason they reportedly gave: that people in the burbs wouldn’t care about such a movie.

But what else would persuade a suburbanite to travel all the way to Chicago to see a film if not something like Time Regained? Surely not a chance to see The Patriot on a slightly bigger screen (democracy at work: we can choose where to see bad summer movies). I suspect that the contempt these suburban editors have for their readers is a form of fear: if they admitted that better fare was available elsewhere, the studios might get annoyed and withhold some of their advertising dollars.… Read more »

The Five Senses

Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa’s watchable and sensitive first feature, Eclipse (1994), was one of those narrative daisy chains in the manner of La ronde. This one’s another, and in some respects it’s even better, not only more ambitious (as in the various ways the five senses are worked into the crisscrossing story lines) but more nuanced. The main characters include a widowed massage therapist (Gabrielle Rose), a cake baker (Mary-Louise Parker) who can’t speak the same language as her Italian lover (Marco Leonardi), a couple of sexually transgressive teenagers (Nadia Litz and Brendan Fletcher), a house cleaner (Daniel MacIvor) who hunts down old lovers in the belief that true love has a particular smell, a French eye doctor (Philippe Volter) who’s going deaf, and a little girl who disappears. The story didn’t fully answer all my queries about the characters, but did such a nice job of keeping me interested that I wound up appreciating the mysteries that remained. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sweet Cheat [THE PAST REGAINED]

From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 2000). My thanks to my editor on this piece, Kitry Krause, for (among  many other things) coming up with my title. — J.R.

Time Regained ***

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Gilles Taurand and Ruiz

With Marcello Mazzarella, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich, Pascal Greggory, Marie-France Pisier, Christian Vadim, Arielle Dombasle, Chiara Mastroianni, and the voice of Patrice Chéreau.

[A few years ago], I refused to direct Remembrance of Things Past. I wrote to the woman producer [Nicole Stéphane] that no real filmmaker would allow himself to squeeze the madeleine as though it were a lemon and in my opinion only a film butcher would have the nerve to put Proust through the mincer.

A few weeks later she obtained the agreement of the Verdurin salon, that is to say, Re Clement. Come to think of it, is Proust burning in [the book-burning fires of my film] Fahrenheit 451? No, but this omission will soon be corrected.

— François Truffaut, “The Journal of Fahrenheit 451” (1966)

I read Remembrance of Things Past all the way through more than 35 years ago, shortly before Truffaut registered his scorn about the very notion of a film version (Stéphane eventually got the film made in 1984, Volker Schlšndorff’s dispensable Swann in Love).… Read more »

I’m The One That I Want

This feature-length film (2000) of Margaret Cho’s potent one-woman show recalls the early stand-up films of Richard Pryor 20 years ago. There’s the same confessional fervor and pain-ridden comedy deriving from a restaging of traumas having to do with identity crises and substance abuse. As a 31-year-old Korean-American, former alcoholic, star of a discontinued sitcom, and self-described fag hag, Cho has plenty of issues of her own. But there’s a similar kind of hilariously cathartic autocritique as she examines her efforts to lose weight and become less Asian when her sitcom was in jeopardy, and her priceless impersonations of her mother offer a pungent concentrate of her complex responses to racism. It’s hard to think of many more galvanizing definitions of what it means to be an American than Cho’s volcanic self-assessments. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sorrow and the Pity

the-sorrow-and-the-pity

The cinema has produced few more impressive pieces of investigative journalism than this epic 1971 documentary by Marcel Ophuls — 260 minutes long, plus a 15-minute intermission — about the German occupation of France. Ophuls, son of the great Max Ophuls, devotes the first part to the fall of France, the second part to everyday life during the Occupation up through the Liberation. In both parts he focuses on the city of Clermont-Ferrand, not far from Vichy, and the heart of the film consists of relaxed interviews with survivors — French as well as German, resistance fighters as well as collaborationists — and newsreels and propaganda films from the period. The interviews are dated somewhat by the dearth of female subjects (only one out of the 36 principal speakers, and a Petain supporter at that); women are often visible, but apart from the occasional interjection they function mainly as domestic decor. One of the film’s abiding strengths is Ophuls’s refusal to rely on easy ironies or facile divisions between heroes and villains, despite his implicit emphasis throughout on ethical issues. Near the beginning and end of the film he employs the unsettling technique of freezing the frame while the subject’s voice continues, which suggests that even the “frozen” past still has fresh things to tell us.… Read more »

Pale Noir [TRIXIE]

From the Chicago Reader (July 14, 2000). — J.R.

Trixie

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Alan Rudolph

With Emily Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy, Lesley Ann Warren, Will Patton, and Stephen Lang.

[Trixie] is propelled by this need in her own personality to accomplish something and find the truth. But of course, the truth doesn’t exist anymore. The truth now seems to be whatever gets the most applause. — Alan Rudolph in an interview

Alan Rudolph’s previous feature, Breakfast of Champions (1999), probably his best since Choose Me (1984), is an abrasive, angry, formally imaginative, and generally faithful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s book of the same name. It has a lot going for it, including Bruce Willis, who helped finance it, as a blustering car dealer, one of his best performances to date; Barbara Hershey as his pill-popping wife; Nick Nolte as his sales manager and best friend, who guiltily harbors a fetish for lingerie; and Albert Finney as Vonnegut’s dark doppelganger, itinerant hack SF writer Kilgore Trout. It was easily last year’s most corrosive Hollywood movie about the American way of life, and it was especially good at showing the claustrophobic desperation of living in a small midwestern town and slowly going insane — a potent literary theme at least since Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.… Read more »

Jacques Tati, by David Bellos

From the Summer 2000 issue of Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 3. — J.R.

Jacques Tati

by David Bellos. London: The Harvill Press, 1999. 382 pp., illus. Hardcover: £25.

In some ways, this is a better biography of Jacques Tati than we had cause to expect from anyone — certainly a more cultivated one than the useful if relatively lowbrow efforts of James Harding in English (1984) and Marc Dondey in French (written with the assistance of Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff, 1993). So it’s all the more regrettable that no American publisher or distributor to date has shown any interest in making this English book available. Even more unexpectedly, the author — who currently teaches in the departments of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages at Princeton — is best known for his work on Balzac (a survey of French criticism over the second half of the nineteenth century) and Georges Perec (a major biography and a good many translations). In fact, there are even a few unforced allusions to Balzac and Perec threaded through this text.

But why Tati? Conceding in his Preface that he isn’t a film critic, a film buff, or a filmmaker manqué, Bellos makes no claims for offering any “last word” about “one of the outstanding creators of the 20th century,” butadmits to some curiosity about the sturdiness of the few films Jacques Tati made as an oeuvre — “a set of films which, taken together, is much more than the sum of its parts.” I would argue that this is a quality Tati shared with Dreyer, Welles, and Kubrick — a capacity to keep changing while deceptively maintaining the same inner logic so that years would sometimes pass between these filmmakers’ innovations and the public’s capacity to absorb them.… Read more »

Trixie

Writer-director Alan Rudolph, working from a story written with John Binder, calls this a screwball noir, which suggests both the film’s charm and limitations. It’s an oddball vehicle for Emily Watson, who’s a security cop spouting endless malapropisms while uncovering corruption around a casino. The charm resides in the performances by Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy, and Lesley Ann Warren, as well as in the stylish mise en scene, but the characters and plot seem slightly shopwornnoir is used more as formula than as a means of discovery or commentary. (By contrast, Rudolph’s previous feature, Breakfast of Champions, unreleased locally except on video, is one of his best.) Expect something lightweight and you shouldn’t be disappointed. 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

American Pimp

What’s so disturbing yet provocative about this documentary by Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) is that it essentially celebrates as well as interrogates its chosen subject. More precisely, it allows the pimps it interviews to celebrate themselves, offering them the equivalent of their own music videos in which to strut their stuff. Even if one disapproves of the resultsit’s hard not to, given the countless obfuscations and omissions ensured by such an approachthere’s also more understanding of a certain kind than would come from a holier-than-thou polemic. One has to weigh the lift against the mystifications. There isn’t the sort of analysis one would hope to find (the Hugheses even sidestep the issue of whether pimps are as important to prostitution as they once were), but at least one gets a pungent look at what makes being a pimp look attractive to some people in certain circumstances. Check it out for yourself; I’ve felt at least as conflicted about the Hughes brothers’ other movies, but this one arguably accomplishes and says the most. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Short and Sweet: Kiarostami’s Experimental Origins

A sidebar for Film Comment (July-August 2000). –- J.R.

Viewers feeling flummoxed by Kiarostami’s features might have an easier time with his shorts. The most important are the nine he made between 1970 and 1982 for the film division of the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which he co-founded in 1969. Assigned to make educational films, Kiarostami scoured a ‘National Film Board of Canada catalog for ideas, regarding Norman McLaren as one of his guides. More than one of his shorts uses animation: So Can I (1975) juxtaposes the movements of cartoon animals with a live-action boy’s imitations. Kiarostami’s only previous gigs had been making commercials and credit sequences for features, and from what he told me recently, he didn’t consider himself a film artist at the time.

But he took the job seriously, and what emerged are experimental films in the best sense, without pretension, akin in form to what Brecht called “learning-plays”. I don’t mean that they offer political critiques of the state of Iran or the state of Islam, as some American commentators seem to feel all Iranian films should. They’re designed to help kids reflect on ethical, aesthetic, and practical issues ranging from the virtues of brushing one’s teeth (Toothache, 1980) to the specific properties of color and sound.… Read more »

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first major film (1966, though banned and unseen until 1971), 185 minutes long, cowritten by Andrei Konchalovsky, about a 15th-century icon painter. This medieval epic announced the birth of a major talent; it also stuns with the sort of unexpected poetic explosions we’ve come to expect from Tarkovsky: an early flying episode suggesting Gogol, a stirring climax in color. Not to be missed. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Chicago, Wednesday, July 12, 7:00, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Rififi

It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the Hollywood blacklist that directors such as Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield had to hide behind fronts or pseudonyms, whereas Jules Dassin was able to direct this atmospheric 1955 French thriller under his own name and still get it shown in the U.S., where it was something of an art-house hit. (Oddly, as a cast member he uses the name Perlo Vita.) Shot in Paris and its environs and adapted from an Auguste le Breton novel with the author’s assistance, this is a familiar but effective parable of honor among thieves, and though it may not be as ideologically meaningful as the juicy noirs Dassin made for HollywoodThe Naked City (1947), Thieves’ Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950)it’s probably more influential, above all for its half-hour sequence without dialogue that meticulously shows the whole process of an elaborate jewelry heist. With Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, and Robert Manuel. In French with subtitles. 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Letter

This doesn’t approach the achievement of Manoel de Oliveira’s previous feature, Inquietude, the highlight of last year’s festival and my favorite film of 1998. But the 34th film of Portugal’s greatest filmmaker maintains his usual cool audacity, fearlessly courting absurdity at every turn. Now that he’s in his early 90smaking him the only living filmmaker who worked before the coming of soundyou might say he’s entitled to his dry conceptual wit; but this wasn’t the position of the members of the American press at Cannes when The Letter won the jury prize, many of whom seemed scandalized. An adaptation of Madame de La Fayette’s classic 1678 novel about court intrigue and unrequited love, La princesse de Cleves, transplanted into contemporary European high society and played out in designer clothes, it simply and brutally juxtaposes two eras 300 years apart to elicit not easy laughs but sustained, amused disbelief. The heroine, suffering stoically in a passionless arranged marriage, is not so much played as embodied by Chiara Mastroianniwhose mother (Catherine Deneuve) was cast in de Oliveira’s The Convent and whose father (Marcello Mastroianni) was in his Journey to the Beginning of the World. Even less acted is the object of her concealed love and lust, the famous Portuguese pop singer Pedro Abrunhosa, imperturbably playing himself as an incongruous stand-in for the duke of Nemours.… Read more »