Daily Archives: April 1, 1995

Celia

The first feature (1988) of the quirky, original, and subversive Australian writer-director Ann Turner, whose Dallas Doll was one of the best and weirdest independent efforts of its year. Celia isn’t quite as good, but it tells a fascinating and disquieting story, set in 1957 Melbourne, about the effects of anticommunism and a rabbit plague on the nine-year-old girl of the title. Her grandmother, who dies just before the film begins, had been a member of the Australian Communist Party, as are the parents of the children who live next door, with whom Celia forms a blood pact. Her father and uncle’s intolerance of communists is elaborately cross-referenced with local fears about proliferating rabbits, which have dire consequences for Celia when she acquires a pet bunny; her forms of rebellion escalate to voodoo rites and ultimately murder. The storytelling isn’t as streamlined as one might wish, but the performance of Rebecca Smart as Celia and Turner’s passionate viewpoint make this both arresting and distinctive. With Nicholas Eadie, Maryanne Fahey, Victoria Longley, and William Zappa. (JR)… Read more »

La Habanera

Directed by Detlef Sierck shortly before he became Douglas Sirk, this Nazi-era vehicle (1937) for superstar Zarah Leander evokes the semiracist ambience of an Esther Williams-Fernando Lamas musical of the 50s. A Swedish woman falls for a Latin lover in tropical climes, but the fantasy sours as the heroine and her son begin to feel like prisoners. Kitschy fun, but not a patch on Final Accord, the masterpiece Sirk made in Germany the prior year. In German with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Final Accord

My favorite Douglas Sirk filmmade in Germany in 1936, when he was still known as Detlef Sierckmdis a dazzlingly cinematic, fast-moving melodrama built around classical music; it’s alternately perverse, exalted, and delirious. Shuttling back and forth between New York and Berlin with an ease that suggests those cities were in closer proximity to each other in the 30s than they are today, the opening sequences present a destitute widow (Maria von Tasnady) recovering her will to live by listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on the radio, broadcast live from Germany, where the conductor (Willy Birgel) is coincidentally in the process of adopting her little boy. When she returns to Berlin she goes to work as the boy’s nanny, concealing the fact that she’s his mother, while the conductor’s less musically inclined wife (Lil Dagover) tries to break free from an astrologer-blackmailer who’s threatening to expose her adultery with him. There’s also a creepy and seemingly malevolent maid, a climactic trial, and several sequences involving music and duplicity that produce some astonishing visual candenzas and editing rhyme effects. (This is the film that inspired Sirk to note that camera angles are a director’s thoughts and lighting is his philosophy.) The movie was an enormous success in Germany when it came out, and it isn’t hard to understand why; it’s the finest Nazi-era fiction feature I’ve seen.… Read more »

Amateur

If you can swallow one more amnesia plot and one more recycling of favorite bits from Godard’s Bande a part, pressed to serve yet another postmodernist antithriller about redemption, this has its compensations (1994). Even if the usually enjoyable Hal Hartley seems more at home on Long Island than in New York City, his chosen turf here, and Martin Donovan seems less comfortable than he did in Hartley’s Trust, the weird and wonderful Elina L… Read more »

The Glass Shield

The fourth feature (1995) by this country’s most gifted black filmmaker, Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), is his first with a directly political edgea heartfelt and persuasive look at the racism and corruption of the Los Angeles police force, based on a true story and calculated to burn its hard lessons straight into your skull. The plot concerns the adjustments made by a sincere black rookie cop (Michael Boatman) who joins an all-white precinct and wants to be accepted by his fellow officers; his only real ally turns out to be the one woman in the precinct (Lori Petty, in a singular performance), a Jew who gets plenty of abuse herself. When a murder case arises involving a black suspect (Ice Cube), the hero’s decision to perjure himself in order to support his white partner opens a Pandora’s box of ironies and ambiguities that the movie squarely faces. The distributor forced him to tone down the anger and despair of his original ending, but this still packs a mighty punch. With Elliott Gould and M. Emmet Walsh. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Risk

This quirky 1993 love story with tragic overtones by independent writer-director Deirdre Fisher about an unsuccessful woman artist and a disturbed petty thief is kept interesting mainly by the leads, David Ilku and Karen Sillas (What Happened Was . . . , Simple Men). But even they can’t redeem the sketchy material, and then you have to be able to bear the John Paul Jones rock score (I couldn’t). With Molly Price and Jack Gwaltney. (JR)… Read more »

While You Were Sleeping

A lonely Chicago subway cashier (Sandra Bullock) saves a commuter (Peter Gallagher) from a speeding train, and while he remains in a coma she’s mistaken for his fiancee and virtually adopted by his family. The plot of this 1995 romantic comedy, directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings) from a script by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow, is pretty stupid throughout, and the filmmakers show no compunction in shaking its silliness in your face, but the film’s casual warmth may make you tolerate some of the shortcomingsespecially since Bullock seems to be having such a fine time with her first starring role. With Bill Pullman, Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, and Jack Warden. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

New Jersey Drive

In his second feature (after the low-budget, promising, but overly familiar Laws of Gravity), Nick Gomez acquires a much bigger budget, Spike Lee as executive producer, and an even more familiar pool of moves and stances copied from other movies, although this time he’s working in a black rather than an Italian American milieu. His story, derived from reporter Michel Marriott’s investigation of a scandal within the Newark police department, is about two joyriding car thieves and their tangles with the police. On one level, this is a bracing, scary account of police brutality; on another, it’s a black street-crime drama that we’ve all seen before. With Sharron Corley, Gabriel Casseus, Donald Adeosun Faison, Gwen McGee, and Saul Stein. (JR)… Read more »

Farinelli

A fairly watchable period film from Belgium by Gerard Corbiau, but ultimately a rather incoherent one due to the overall evasiveness about its two real-life central charactersFarinelli (born Carlo Broschi, 1705-1782), a famous castrato singer born in Naples, and his older brother Riccardo, a composer whose fame depended on his brother’s performance of his works. The curious psychosexual bond between these siblings is an important part of this movie’s subject, but the speculative portrait offered isn’t fully developed; at times one is tempted to read the whole thing as a fractured allegory about art and commerce that’s trying to become another Amadeus. A conceptual movie without a concept, it features a villainous Handel (Jeroen Krabbe), many 18th-century female opera groupies, overblown music, sumptuous sets, and a weird notion of what opera consists of (most of the excerpts make it seem like a one-man show). Still, there are many arresting details around the edges. With Stefano Dionisi, Enrico Lo Verso, Elsa Zylberstein, and Caroline Cellier. (JR)… Read more »

Stuart Saves His Family

Director Harold Ramis’s first film afterGroundhog Day was adapted by Al Franken from his book I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!, and it differs from other recent Saturday Night Live comedy spin-offs in having vestiges of plausible life experience to supplement its central shtick. Franken himself plays a nerdy outcast in Chicago who goes into a psychic funk when he loses his self-help TV show on public-access cable. A visit to his dysfunctional family in Minneapolis reveals an alcoholic father (Harris Yulin), a dope-smoking layabout brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hysterical sister (Lesley Boone), and a mother trapped in denial (Shirley Knight); most of the rest of the movie is devoted to Stuart’s efforts to negotiate this unstable background. (The title is something of a misnomer, because his success is only partial.) Even if you find Franken hard to bear, as I do, the movie’s take on how he functions in the world is both authoritative and compelling, and the movie steadily grows in stature. Like Groundhog Day, it’s actually dealing with the contemporary worlda rare virtue in movies nowadaysand some of it’s pretty funny too. With Laura San Giacomo. (JR)… Read more »

India

An amiable 1994 Austrian road movie/buddy comedy by Paul Harather, derived from a theater piece about two government health inspectors, temperamentally at loggerheads, who become the closest of friends. The original theater work was written by the two actors, Josef Hader and Alfred Dorfer, and it remains very much their show. The tone becomes somewhat darker when one of the heroes develops terminal cancer, but the overall mood is funny and affirmative. (JR)… Read more »

Titanica

This 94-minute Imax documentary by Stephen Low (1991) has the same nonaesthetic features of other films in this formatmost notably a TV-like lack of precise composition necessitated by the curved screenbut its subject, the risky Canadian-American-Russian expedition to pick over the wreckage of the Titanic, has an inherent fascination and haunted poetry that triumphs over the sometimes hokey, often trumped-up presentation; at times the film becomes a kind of undersea 2001. Oddly, the crew participants are encouraged to relate to the camera like actors and some of the camera angles suggest a fiction film (significantly, storyboards are alluded to in the final credits). But a judicious combination of period photographs (some genuine, some composite), a contemporary interview with one of the few living Titanic survivors, and views of the ship’s remnants two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface give this the curious, paradoxical feel of a scientific ghost film. (JR)… Read more »

Elvis ’56

An excellent one-hour documentary (1987) that charts the pivotal year in the career of Elvis Presley when he went from being an obscure rockabilly/blues performer who drove a truck to a national icon with several gold records to his credit. Armed with fascinating archival footage and rare still photographs, Alan and Susan Raymond, who originally made this for cable, do a persuasive job of suggesting that, contrary to most versions of the all-American success myth, Elvis’s artistic freedom and the authenticity of his relationship with his audience dwindled as he became more and more rich and famous. Indeed, the shape and direction of his career as a whole can be discerned during his first year as a starwhen he went from performing at southern dances to singing Hound Dog in a tux to a basset hound in a top hat on Steve Allen’s TV show. (JR)… Read more »

Night Moves

Released in 1975, near the end of Arthur Penn’s most productive period (which began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde), this haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life. Gene Hackman plays an LA detective tracking a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith in her screen debut) to the Florida Keys while evading various problems of his own involving his father and his wife. The labyrinthine mystery plot and pessimistic mood suggest Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and like them screenwriter Alan Sharp has more than conventional mystery mechanics on his mind. One of Penn’s best features; his direction of actors is sensitive and purposeful throughout. With Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Kenneth Mars, and James Woods. 95 min. (JR)… 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 (Signourney Weaver) kidnapping a doctor (Ben Kingsley) she believes was her torturer, while her lawyer husband (Stuart Wilson) serves as a go-between (1994). 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 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 given that there’s so little of it around. (JR)… Read more »