Monthly Archives: December 1994

Redeemable for Cash: The Damned and the Saved

A special sort of Christmas essay from the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1994). — J.R.

Over the past year we’ve been hearing a lot about the theme of redemption in current movies. Actually the seeds of this trend were probably sown back in 1980, when Raging Bull came out, but now “redemption” is becoming something of a buzzword. I recall being taken slightly aback when I heard Harvey Keitel, speaking at the 1992 Toronto film festival, employ the term without any trace of irony in regard to Reservoir Dogs. And since then I’ve been hearing it more and more, mainly in relation to movies associated with Quentin Tarantino (not only Reservoir Dogs but also True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Killing Zoe, and Pulp Fiction) and such varied films as Cape Fear, Cliffhanger, Forrest Gump, The Professional, and even Heavenly Creatures.

What’s surprising is not only the odd assortment of movies in this new canon but those that are automatically excluded. Looking over last year’s releases, one might logically conclude that movies dealing with the spiritual redemption of their lead characters would include, say, Schindler’s List, Little Buddha, Savage Nights, The Shawshank Redemption, Bill Forsyth’s grossly neglected Being Human, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White, and Red.… Read more »

To Live

With this epic account of a Chinese family from the 1940s to the ’70s, Zhang Yimou seems to have abandoned the high aestheticism of his Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern for a more popular and didactic kind of filmmaking (The Story of Qiu Ju can now be seen as a transitional work). To Live is masterful in its own right, and filled with so many barbs at the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath that Zhang has been forbidden to make any films in China with foreign financing for two years (though the stated charge against him is illegal distribution of this film). Adapted by Yu Hua and Lu Wei from Yu’s novel Lifetimes, the film focuses on a wealthy gambling addict (comic actor Ge You) with a pregnant wife (Gong Li) and young daughter who loses his family’s fortune and becomes a shadow puppeteer shortly before civil war erupts; ironically, it’s his recklessness as a gambler that eventually saves him from execution, the first of many sociopolitical paradoxes the movie has to offer. Some of the story’s details recall Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite, but Zhang has his own story to tell and his own points to make.… Read more »

Ready To Wear (pret-a-porter)

After Health probably the worst of Robert Altman’s Nashville spin-offs, disappointing in the thinness of its characters and the overall toothlessness of its satire. Altman and cowriter Barbara Shulgasser take on the French fashion world, and among the many plot strands are an amorous reunion of old lovers played by Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren (with a direct allusion to one of their scenes in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), a rivalry between three fashion magazine editors (Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman) hoping to hire a top fashion photographer (Stephen Rea), a liaison between two designers (Richard E. Grant and Forest Whitaker) depicted with a kind of snickering homophobia that seems 20 years out of date, an impromptu romance between two American reporters (Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts), a Marshall Field’s retailer who likes to dress in drag (Danny Aiello), an unconvincing corporate takeover involving Anouk Aimee (the closest thing to a real character in the movie), Rupert Everett, and Lyle Lovett, and an idiotic roving TV interviewer (Kim Basinger). Many of these strands appear to be setups for surprises or payoffs that either never come or are muffled when they do (some last-minute cutting by Miramax probably didn’t help). If all you’re looking for is some light entertainment, this 1994 comedy probably won’t bore you.… Read more »

What Happened Was …

This gripping and well-acted theatrical duet (1993) evokes a kinder, gentler Oleanna; the setting is the apartment of a paralegal assistant (Karen Sillas) and the circumstance is her first date with a coworker (writer-director Tom Noonan). Neither character is quite who she or he appears to be, and a subtly modulated power shift between the two gradually takes place as each unveils an inner self. The film won a screenwriting award at Sundance, and the actors both seem to know what they’re doing every step of the way. Music Box, Friday through Tuesday, December 16 through 20.… Read more »

Queen Margot

The most oversold French movie of 1994, rivaled only by the previous year’s Germinal (which was directed by the producer of this one, Claude Berri). This unpleasant period spectacle of sweat, gore, grime, and dry humpingbased on Alexandre Dumas’ novel, and built around the bloody intrigues ensuing in 1572 from the forced marriage of Marguerite of Valois (Isabelle Adjani), the French king’s Catholic sister, nicknamed Margot, and Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), an unkempt Protestantwas reduced with the director’s input from 164 to 143 minutes, apparently to acquire an R rating. I haven’t seen the longer version, but they still haven’t cut out all the boring parts, and what anyone could have liked about this movie to begin with is a mystery to me. Patrice Chereau, the director, who wrote the script with Daniele Thompson, has a reputation as one of the best opera and theater directors around, and his previous feature, L’homme blesse, has many defenders. But apart from the production values, I would never have guessed it on the evidence offered here. With Jean-Hugues Anglade, Vincent Perez, Virna Lisi, and Jean-Claude Brialy. (JR)… Read more »


Playing a contemporary southern wild child who grew up in the wilderness with limited human contact, Jodie Foster seems so determined to win her third Oscar that there are moments when you want to give it to her just so she’ll leave you aloneespecially when the movie seems to be going out of its way to remind you of The Accused. But insofar as one can forget all this huffing and puffing and get involved in the storyadapted by William Nicholson and Mark Handley from Handley’s play Idioglossiathis is a touching and often involving variation on the theme of Truffaut’s The Wild Child about what constitutes civilization and why, with more emphasis given in this case to the motives of a humane doctor (Liam Neeson) and an ambitious psychologist (Natasha Richardson) who try to come to terms with this mysterious individual. Michael Apted directed, somewhat unevenly, but with a fine sense of the North Carolina locations, and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is excellent (1994). With Richard Libertini, Nick Searcy, Robin Mullins, and Jeremy Davies. (JR)… Read more »

Last Day in Chicago

Though I wouldn’t call it an unqualified success, this highly evocative black-and-white short feature by Chicagoan Louis Antonelli, which has already received some well-deserved praise from Hollywood actress-director Ida Lupino, re-creates (or, more precisely, rediscovers) Chicago between 1945 and the present in a lovely noirish mood piece–shot in both film and video–about one woman’s loneliness, guided by her offscreen narration. In the dislocations between sight and sound, past and present, fiction and documentary, a haunted obsessional nostalgia takes shape, surrealist in feeling. Antonelli’s wonderful selection of period music (including Frank Sinatra, Claude Thornhill, Cab Calloway, and early Nat Cole) to inflect and caress his images works as effectively as his skilled cast, headed by RKO veteran Bonnie Blair Parker. With Randy Steinmeyer, Kayla Klien, Joan Paxton, and Tracie Harkovich. On the same program, another new film by Antonelli, The Wizard of Austin Boulevard, which I haven’t seen, about the quest of Chicagoan Alexander Kouvalis to restore the northwest side’s Patio Theatre, where this program is being held. There’s also a performance by Dennis Scott on the theater’s organ. Patio, 6008 W. Irving Park, Sunday, December 11, 2:00, 736-0956 or 777-5628.… Read more »

L’amour fou

Rightly described by Dave Kehr as Jacques Rivette’s “breakthrough film, the first of his features to employ extreme length (252 minutes), a high degree of improvisation, and a formal contrast between film and theater,” this rarely screened 1968 masterpiece is one of the great French films of the 60s. It centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier), who leaves the production at the beginning of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35 millimeter) and by TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding. In the rehearsal space Rivette cuts frequently between the 35- and 16-millimeter footage, juxtaposing two kinds of documentary reality; in the couple’s apartment, filmed only in 35, the oscillation between love and madness, passion and mistrust, builds to several terrifying and awesome climaxes in which the distinctions between life and theater, reality and fiction, become virtually irrelevant. In many ways this is Ogier’s richest, finest performance, and Kalfon keeps pace with her every step of the way.… Read more »

Drop Zone

Former U.S. marshal Wesley Snipes is hot on the trail of a team of skydiving computer crooks (including Gary Busey) who killed his brother, but who cares? This is a stupid, cliche-ridden, characterless action romp (1994), directed by John Badham from a script by Peter Barsocchini and John Bishop, and the absence of much moment-to-moment story logic isn’t much compensated for by the skydiving sequences, which aren’t a patch on those in Point Break. With Yancy Butler and Michael Jeter. (JR)… Read more »


A quirky and intermittently interesting period drama about the 16th-century humanitarian doctor and involuntary prophet who allegedly foretold, among other things, the French Revolution, the rise and fall of the British Empire, World War I and World War II, Hitler, the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the moon landing (though whether he also foretold black-and-white newreels and TV documentary footage, complete with the right camera angles, as this film implies, is something else again). Working from an OK script by Knut Boeser and Piers Ashworth, director Roger Christian, a former art director, does a good job of holding one’s interest without insulting one’s intelligence, and the performancesincluding Tcheky Karyo as Nostradamus, Amanda Plummer as Catherine de Medicis, and Julia Ormond, Assumpta Serna, Rutger Hauer, and F. Murray Abrahamare all serviceable. (JR)… Read more »

Immortal Beloved

Writer-director Bernard Rose decides that Ludwig van Beethoven looked like Gary Oldman and had a lot in common with both Charles Foster Kane and Jake LaMotta, and makes a movie to prove it (1994). If you can buy any or all of these premises, you might enjoy this as something other than a hoot. There are plenty of sound bites from Beethoven’s best-known works, nicely performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti’s direction; there are attractive Czech locations, and OK performances by Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, Johanna Ter Steeg, Marco Hofschneider, Barry Humphries, and Miriam Margolyes. There are apparent lifts from Abel Gance’s Beethoven biopic, which also tried to suggest the composer’s growing deafness on the sound track. But if you think this movie is going to solve the mystery of Beethoven’s cryptic inscription on his last quartet, as it pretends to, you’re out of your skull. (JR)… Read more »


Fred Schepisi, back in his Roxanne mode, directs this tale by Michael Leeson and Andrew Breckman (1994). During the Eisenhower 50s Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) and his Princeton-based pals connive to make a match between Einstein’s mathematician niece (Meg Ryan) and an uneducated auto mechanic who’s smitten with her (Tim Robbins). By passing the mechanic off as a genius in physics, they hope to pull her away from her dull fiance, an English behaviorist psychologist. Einstein and his chums (Lou Jacobi, Gene Saks, and Joseph Maher) are made out to be as cute as bugsrather like the trio of Russian diplomats in Ninotchkaand this cheerful demonstration of the power of love over physics is pretty much wedded to Hollywood formula throughout. If you like Ryan and Robbins as much as I do, you’ll probably feel indulgent and even charmed in spots; if you don’t, you’ll probably run screaming out of the theater. With Stephen Fry and Tony Shalhoub. PG, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cafe Au Lait

A first feature by 25-year-old French writer-director-actor Mathieu Kassovitz, this is a light comedy about an 18-year-old West Indian woman who finds herself pregnant by one of her two boyfriendsa Jewish bike messenger (Kassovitz) and an African law student, neither of whom knows about the other before learning of the pregnancy. As the two guys struggle to overcome their racial, ethnic, and class biases they gradually form a sexless trio with the heroine, nursing her along until she gives birth. Most of this is predictable Archie Bunker-style humor, though some of the details about contemporary Parisian life may make it a little fresher for American audiences. With Julie Mauduech and Hubert Kounde. (JR)… Read more »


Affable if rambling revue-sketch material about a 30-ish liberal slacker in Venice Beach just after the LA riots who’s trying to do right by his community, his drug-addict brother, and himself, but who mainly encounters disaster until his life is seemingly touched by grace. This first feature by independent producer Peter McCarthy (Repo Man, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka) is fairly lightweight, but the cast and low-rent production credits have a certain charm; with James LeGros, Ethan Hawke, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, and Lisa Zane. (JR)… Read more »

What Happened Was . . .

This gripping and well-acted theatrical duet (1993) evokes a kinder, gentler Oleanna; the setting is the apartment of a paralegal assistant (Karen Sillas) and the circumstance is her first date with a coworker (writer-director Tom Noonan). Neither character is quite who she or he appears to be, and a subtly modulated power shift between the two gradually takes place as each unveils an inner self. The film won a screenwriting award at Sundance, and the actors both seem to know what they’re doing every step of the way. (JR)… Read more »