Monthly Archives: January 1995


The title of Bertrand Tavernier’s well-turned 146-minute French thriller (1992) refers to the article from the French Code of Public Health that forbids “all offenses linked to the possession, traffic, and consumption of narcotics.” Cowritten by former narcotics officer Michel Alexandre, this film takes a realistic approach, following the everyday routines and bureaucratic frustrations of a Parisian narc, well played by Didier Bezace. The character never quite says “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it,” but this is the general idea, and with an able if not very well-known cast Tavernier makes an absorbing and authentic-looking movie out of it. More to the point, he implicates the audience in the sliminess of certain police operations in a way that has challenging and potent political ramifications–which is probably why this movie has been assailed by both the left and the right in France. See it and make up your own mind. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 27, 7:45; Saturday, January 28, 6:00 and 8:30; and Sunday, January 29, 6:00; 443-3737.

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Before Sunrise

Richard Linklater goes Hollywood–triumphantly and with an overall intelligence, sweetness, and romantic simplicity that reminds me of wartime weepies like The Clock (1945). After meeting on a train out of Budapest, a young American (Ethan Hawke) and a French student (Julie Delpy) casually explore Vienna for 14 hours. What emerges from their impromptu date has neither the flakiness of Linklater’s Slacker nor the generational smarts of his Dazed and Confused (though it’s closer in its picaresque form and lyricism to the former), but it does manage to say a few things about the fragility and uncertainty of contemporary relationships. Linklater’s tact and sincerity in handling such potentially mawkish material are as evident in what he leaves out as in what he includes, and if Hawke sometimes seems a mite doltish and preening, Delpy is a consistent delight. Kim Krizan collaborated with Linklater on the script, which abounds in lively dialogue and imaginative digressions. Don’t expect too much and you might be inordinately charmed. 900 N. Michigan, Evanston, Norridge, Golf Glen.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Improper Conduct

Written and directed by Cuban exiles Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez-Leal, this documentary amasses a lot of talking-heads testimony to human rights violations by the Castro government. The chief target of oppression seems to be Cuba’s gay population, which proves—if any proof were needed—that Marxism doesn’t cancel out machismo. Though the film is more than enough to shake whatever romantic notions of Cuba you may be harboring, the filmmakers’ reliance on unsupported interview material and the rather awkward, undramatic structure of their argument severely compromise the project. Neither extreme enough to make good propaganda (if such a thing exists), nor reasoned enough to qualify as good reportage, the film barely seems to have earned the storm of controversy that surrounded it. (JR)… Read more »

A Man Of No Importance

Even though it stars Albert Finney, this is a picture of no importance, undone mainly by its self-ingratiated cuteness. (The English have the perfect adjective to describe the tone, twee, which is somewhere between quaint and smarmy.) Finney plays a Dublin bus conductor in the early 60s who’s devoted to Oscar Wilde and to using his job to recruit actors for his amateur productions of Wilde plays; he’s also a repressed homosexual going through a middle-aged sexual awakening, which provokes the disapproving suspicions of his sister and a local butcher. This movie has heart all right, but seems much too pleased and facile about it. Written by Barry Devlin and directed by Suri Krishnamma; with Brenda Fricker, Michael Gambon, and Tara Fitzgerald. (JR)… Read more »

Ladybird, Ladybird

Based on a true story, Ken Loach’s powerful and disturbing British drama about a single working-class mother with four children from four different fathers is made unforgettable both by stand-up comedian Crissy Rock’s lead performance and by the filmmakers’ determination to make the story as messy and as complex as life itself. After many abusive relationships, Maggie, the heroine, settles down with a gentle Paraguayan refugee (beautifully played by Vladimir Vega), but then has to contend repeatedly with the state taking away her children. This sounds like a simple antiwelfare polemic, but Loach doesn’t allow us to walk away from the movie with any settled or monolithic message. As written by Rona Munro and played by Rock, Maggie is a volcanic conundrum, and the deeper we become involved in her fate, the less sure we become about anything. Highly recommended. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 20 through 26.… Read more »

Bad Company

This interesting and effective spy thriller, directed by Damian Harris from a script by mystery novelist Ross Thomas, starts out as an upscale Deep Cover: industrial espionage financed by big business takes the place of police undercover work in drugs, and Laurence Fishburne again ably plays a sort of double agent. But this film confounds most of the usual expectations. Though the atmosphere is predictably cynical, not all the characters are quite as cynical as they first appear. It might be argued that the personal stories ultimately overwhelm the political message (a common occurrence in Hollywood thrillers of this kind, excepting Deep Cover), but the overall theme of former CIA operatives going to work for big business is both plausible and eerily suggestive (as is the bunkerlike building where they work). Ellen Barkin is first-rate as Fishburne’s coworker and lover, and the secondary cast–including Frank Langella, Michael Beach, Gia Carides, David Ogden Stiers, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Spalding Gray, and an uncredited Michael Murphy–adds flavor and piquancy. Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Chestnut Station, Golf Glen, North Riverside, Plaza, Ford City, Evanston.… Read more »

Death and the Maiden

With the help of Rafael Yglesias and Ariel Dorfman, Roman Polanski has adapted Dorfman’s three-character play about a former political prisoner (Sigourney Weaver) kidnapping a doctor (Ben Kingsley) whom she believes was her torturer, while her lawyer husband (Stuart Wilson) serves as a go-between. Even though he’s psychologically expanded his source, the material is a bit too schematic to work as much more than a scaled-down thriller. By plunking three characters down in a remote location beside a body of water Polanski revives some of the triangular tensions found in his Knife in the Water and portions of his Cul-de-sac, but this comes across as a less personal work than either of those films or Bitter Moon, and is intermittently hampered by the mental adjustments that have to be made in order to accept English and American actors playing South American characters. Even so, Polanski certainly gets the maximum voltage and precision out of his story and actors, keeping us preternaturally alert to shifting power relationships and delayed revelations. It’s refreshing to see this mastery in a climate where there’s so little of it around. Water Tower.… Read more »

Higher Learning

John Singleton’s third feature (1995)a decisive improvement on Poetic Justice but less fully realized than Boyz N the Hoodoffers a street-smart view of multiracial campus life at a fictitious middle-American university. Among his perceptions is that American education currently functions like a business. The characters include three freshmena black athlete on a track scholarship (powerfully played by Omar Epps), a white woman (Kristy Swanson) coping with a near rape and flirting with bisexuality, and a highly disaffected white youth (Michael Rapaport) who joins a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. There’s also a stern but understanding professor (Laurence Fishburne), and Ice Cube has a nice part as a malingering intellectual. Aiming at a microcosm of American life comparable in some ways to Do the Right Thing, Singleton can’t quite justify or explicate his parting message (unlearn), but his passion is exemplary. R, 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

In The Mouth Of Madness

Director John Carpenter turns gothic and modernist at the same time in this scary if overloaded paranoid story (1995) by Michael De Luca, about an insurance adjuster (Sam Neill) hired to track down a best-selling horror author (J… Read more »

The Moon Is Blue

In the first of his independent features as producer-director (1953) Otto Preminger adapts his most successful stage production, a light romantic comedy by F. Hugh Herbert that ran for over 900 performances. Released without production code approval and condemned by the Legion of Decency for its use of such taboo phrases as virgin, seduce, and pregnant, none of which bothered anyone in the stage run, it’s regarded today mainly as a curio. Yet for all the movie’s staginess and datedness, it’s a more personal and ambiguous work than it initially appears to be. Architect William Holden ogles and picks up professional virgin Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building and brings her back to his apartment, where his next-door neighborshis former girlfriend (Dawn Addams) and her playboy father (David Niven)quickly involve this potential couple in various intrigues. A certain prurient (as well as analytical) curiosity in Preminger’s distanced and mobile camera style makes McNamara seem slightly corrupt and Holden and Niven slightly innocent, despite all appearances to the contrary, and the sour aftertaste to this frothy material is an important part of what keeps the picture interesting. Incidentally, Preminger simultaneously shot a German-language version of the same film, the stars of which have cameos in the last scene of the American version.… Read more »

Putney Swope

Robert Downey Sr.’s low-budget, hit-or-miss dadaist (or gagaist) 1969 satire, about a group of blacks taking over a Madison Avenue ad agency, is a bit of a relic now, though a decidedly offbeat one. Only a fraction of the jokes ever worked, but the determined goofiness of some of the conceits (e.g., German midgets Pepi and Ruth Hermine as the U.S. president and first lady) and the interspersed parodic TV commercials (all of them in color, though the rest of the movie is in black and white) give one a better idea of the jaunty excesses of the late 60s than Hollywood movies of the same period. If you’re in a silly enough mood, you might have a good time. With Arnold Johnson, Stanley Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Antonio Fargas, and a fleeting bit by Mel Brooks. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Chasing Butterflies

An elegant if rather remote ironic comedy (1993) by Otar Iosseliani (Favorites of the Moon), a Georgian filmmaker based mostly in France in recent years. Like Tati, Iosseliani films his characters and their whimsical behavior almost exclusively in medium and long shots, and like Bunuel, he seems more than a little amused by decadent aristocrats. But unlike these masters, he doesn’t really qualify as a social observer; the worlds of his recent films suggest parables or allegories dreamed up by an expatriate more than concrete engagements with French life. I didn’t much like this picture, though I feel I should have; I just couldn’t get into the detached humor. (JR)… Read more »

Minboor The Gentle Art Of Japanese Extortion

A broad satirical farce by Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) about the efforts of a luxury hotel in Tokyo to rid itself of yakuza who are using the place as a hangout (1992). These efforts prove ineffectual, thanks to the gangsters’ not-so-gentle art of intimidation, until the hotel hires a lawyer (Nobuku Miyamoto, Itami’s wife and frequent leading lady) who’s well versed in the problems involved and who plans various counterattacks. Eventually this picture turns solemn and serious in order to hammer home points that are made more effectively through comedy, and there’s a corny Western-elevator-music score (broken only occasionally by sinister patches of percussion) that may set your teeth on edge. But one sign of the relevance of this movie is that Itami was brutally attacked by three gangsters less than a week after it opened in Japan, leaving him with permanent scars he wears as badges of honor. (JR)… Read more »

Sex And Zen

There isn’t a whole lot of Zen here, barring the opening and closing scenes with a priest, but there’s plenty of lively sex, both conventional and otherwise, in this high-spirited porn romp from Hong Kong, adapted by Lee Ying Kit from Li Yu’s Ming dynasty erotic novel Prayer Mat of the Flesh and directed by Michael Mak. At times the overall ambience suggests a Chinese version of The Arabian Nights and the Decameron; one central character is a flying thief, and one riotous slapstick sequence details the complications that ensue when the hero, a lecherous scholar whose penis is shorter than he would like, arranges to have a transplant from a horse. (JR)… Read more »

Cape Fear

This 1962 thriller is better than the Scorsese remakeabove all for Robert Mitchum’s chilling performance as a vengeful ex-con and an overall brute force in the crude story linethough it’s arguably still some distance from deserving its reputation as a classic. Stolid Gregory Peck plays the family man, and Polly Bergen is his menaced wife; Bernard Herrmann wrote the score. Based on John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners; with Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas, and Barrie Chase. J. Lee Thompson directed. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »