Monthly Archives: September 1993

The Joy Luck Club

A wonderful tearjerker about four young Chinese American women in San Francisco (Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamilyn Tomita, and Ming-Na Wen) and their Chinese immigrant mothers (Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, and France Nuyen). Adapted from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel by the author and Ron Bass, and directed by Wayne Wang, it is a story (or more precisely, four interwoven stories) told mainly in flashbacks. Wang, whose previous work has reflected the influence of both Ozu (Dim Sum) and Godard (Life Is Cheap), seems to have fallen under the spell of Mizoguchi here, and this model serves him well. At once fascinating for its detailed lore about Chinese customs and legacies and very moving in its realization, the film builds into a highly emotional epic about what it means to be both Chinese and American. Fine Arts.… Read more »

King of the Hill

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.

The most impressive thing about Steven Soderbergh’s third feature (after sex, lies, and videotape and Kakfa) — an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s childhood memoirs, rich in period flavor — is that it’s set in Saint Louis in 1933, roughly three decades before Soderbergh was born, yet it offers a pungent and wholly believable portrait of what living through the Depression was like. Soderbergh gets an uncommonly good lead performance out of Jesse Bradford as the resourceful 12-year-old hero, living in a seedy hotel and steadily losing the members of his family: his kid brother (Cameron Boyd) gets shipped off to an uncle, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) to a sanitarium, and then his German father (Jeroen Krabbe) goes off to try to make money as a door-to-door watch salesman. We also learn a fair amount about the hero’s neighbors (Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Adrien Brody) and schoolmates, and Soderbergh does a fine job of keeping us interested and engaged without stooping to sentimentality. This is a lovely piece of work. Fine Arts.

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El Cid

Not surprisingly, this 1961 epic about the Spanish national hero, the Castilian warrior Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, is often static as drama (with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren used mainly as icons) and pretty dubious as history. But thanks to Anthony Mann’s splendid eye for landscape, composition, and spectacle–in particular his striking use of the edges of the ‘Scope frame, a facet (among others) that is totally lost on TV and video–this is a rousing and often stirring show. Scripted by Frederic M. Frank and Philip Yordan, scored by Miklos Rozsa, and costarring Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, and Herbert Lom, the film has been rereleased under the auspices of Martin Scorsese. It runs about three hours, and there is an intermission two-thirds of the way through. Fine Arts.… Read more »

Anna Christie

A subtitled print of the fascinating German-language version of Greta Garbo’s first talkie (1930), shot at the same time and on the same MGM sets as the more familiar English version of the Eugene O’Neill play–a procedure carried out with several other pictures during this period, before dubbing was invented. The German version has a different director (Jacques Feyder instead of Clarence Brown) and a different supporting cast (Hans Junkermann, Theo Ball, and Salka Viertel instead of Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, and Marie Dressler). The film is something of a relic in both versions–with periodic cuts from long shots in sharp focus to close-ups of Garbo in soft focus, and O’Neill’s lifelong obsession with alcoholic male carousers and their suffering, neglected women getting full play. But Garbo is electrifying, and, if memory serves, she may actually be a little tougher and more soulful in the German version. See both versions back-to-back (as you can on Wednesday) and decide for yourself. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.… Read more »

Schtonk

A pretty good German comedy by Helmut Dietl, nominated for an Oscar, that satirizes Germany’s relation to its Nazi past, with particular reference to the Hitler diaries hoax. It chronicles the exploits of a charlatan who starts out as an art forger, then takes up counterfeiting Nazi relics, including Hitler’s diaries and even his (and Eva Braun’s) ashes, in collusion with a puffed-up, greedy Hamburg journalist who’s restoring one of Goring’s ships and romancing one of his nieces. The title is a nonsense word derived from Chaplin’s splutters in The Great Dictator; the tone is cheerfully irreverent, though this is hardly a patch on The Nasty Girl. (JR)… Read more »

You Can’t Take It With You

Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s reductive, relatively conformist version of the Kaufman and Hart farce about an eccentric family (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington) coming into contact with a rich one (Edward Arnold, Mary Forbes, James Stewart) won best-picture and best-director Oscars in 1938. There are still some laughs and entertainment to be found here, but forget about fidelity to the original. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

Two Features With One Ticket

An Iranian comedy (1991) by Dariush Farhang about the complications and disasters that ensue when an Iranian director, played by Farhang himself, tries to shoot an American-style action picture. His lead actor refuses to perform a stunt, then becomes injured, reducing the director to finding a slum dweller who resembles him in order to complete the picture. Some of this is funny, but too much comes across as the kind of slick, soulless filmmaking the movie professes to parody. (JR)… Read more »

True Romance

Tony Scott (Top Gun) directs a Quentin Tarantino script about a couple (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette) fleeing from Detroit to Los Angeles with the mob and the police after them (1993). There’s plenty of pizzazz on view but not always a lot of sense; as usual, Tarantino’s sense of fun is infectious but fairly heartless (as in the easy way the movie shrugs off the courageous death of Slater’s father, a former cop played by Dennis Hopper), and Scott’s direction is slick but mechanical, which pretty much seems what’s called for. With Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

Road Scholar

I’ve never encountered the poetry of Romanian expatriate writer Andrei Codrescu or his contributions to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I hope I never have to after seeing this 1992 documentary produced and directed by Roger Weisberg, which follows Codrescu as he drives across the U.S., spouting cliches whenever he can’t find a religious cultist or gun freak or McDonald’s executive to spout them for him. The narrative’s jocular, superficial tone becomes insufferable once it’s apparent that no subject is going to be accorded anything more than a cutesy one-liner. Whatever the limitations of Sherman’s March and Roger & Me, they at least offered some food for thought along with the self-congratulation; this offers little more than smarmy joke cues and poetic platitudes. (JR)… Read more »

The Music Of Chance

Though it eliminates most of the first chapter and sweetens the ending, this is a fairly literal adaptation (1993) by documentary filmmaker Philip Haas (Money Man) of Paul Auster’s allegorical, parablelike novel about the nature of freedom, scripted with Haas’s wife, film editor Belinda Haas. A former fireman and drifter (Mandy Patinkin) stakes a professional poker player (James Spader) in a game with two eccentric millionaires (Charles Durning and Joel Grey); after going bust the drifter and poker player wind up building a stone wall across a meadow to work off their debts. The acting is engaging and resourceful (Spader and M. Emmet Walsh as a foreman are standouts), but the translation of this highly literary tale into something cinematic never quite takes place; with Samantha Mathis. (JR)… Read more »

Masala

A brash and sprightly Canadian comedy about Indian emigres in Toronto, with musical numbers, erotic dream sequences, exploding airplanes, a blue-skinned Hindu deity who exists mainly on video, a fair amount of farce, and a great deal of satire. In his first feature the young writer-director-star Srinivas Krishna seems less comfortable as an actor than as a filmmaker, but he coaxes rich performances from Saeed Jaffrey, who plays three separate parts (including the Hindu deity), and otherwise keeps things hopping; with Sakina Jaffrey (Saeed’s daughter) and Zohra Segal (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Married Life

A pretty good Mexican revenge comedy (1993) by Luis Carlos Carrera about an abused wife (Socorro Bonilla) who has to wait most of her life to dispose of her philandering husband (Alonso Echanove). You’ve seen it all before, but the direction and performances give it some flavor and bite. (JR)… Read more »

The Man Who Envied Women

Strangely enough, modern dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer was known throughout the 60s and early 70s as a minimalist. Yet for more than two decades she’s been making experimental quasi-narrative films of increasing density, culminating in this angry, vibrant film of 1985 that, in her words, takes on the housing shortage, changing family patterns, the poor pitted against the middle class, Hispanics against Jews, artists and politics, female menopause, abortion rights. There’s even a dream sequence. Working with the speeches and writings of more than a dozen figures, ranging from Raymond Chandler to Julia Kristeva, Rainer confronts and parodies male theoretical discourse (Michel Foucault in particular, sampled and discussed in extended chunks) as a mode of sexual seduction. Politics has been present in all her features, but usually folded into so many distancing devices it comes out mainly dressed in quotes; here she allows it to speak more directly and eloquently, letting it charge the rest of the filmrightly assuming we could all use a few jolts. (JR)… Read more »

Malice

A serial killer and rapist is at large in a small college town, but what he does to his prey isn’t much worse than what Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank’s muddled thriller script and Harold Becker’s klutzy direction do to credibility. The lead actorsNicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Alec Baldwinare reasonably fun to watch in spite of the escalating silliness, as long as you aren’t expecting to read them as human beings all the way through, and George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft each get a fancy cameo turn that takes up some of the slack; they’re having so much fun they must not have had to watch the rest of the movie (1993). (JR)… Read more »

The Good Son

Ian McEwan’s original screenplay offers good possibilities for two separate moviesone about a 12-year-old (Elijah Wood) coping with the recent death of his mother and believing that his aunt (Wendy Crewson) is her reincarnation, the other about a 12-year-old spending time with a sadistic cousin (Macaulay Culkin) while his father is away. Unfortunately, despite the occasionally resourceful direction of Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather), each of these promising scenarios winds up getting in the way of the other. And the casting of Culkin is less clever than it initially might have seemed: he’s already been applauded for sadism and cruelty in the Home Alone movies, so asking us to find the same qualities disturbing here seems a bit of a stretch. There’s wonderful use made of a Maine port town, and Ruben gets a dizzying thrill or two out of overhead shots, but the conceptual overload finally prevents this from coming together (1993). (JR)… Read more »