Monthly Archives: April 1997

Commandments

Ludicrous as morality or theology but passable as light entertainment (despite the lame try at jaunty theme music), writer-director Daniel Taplitz’s comedy-drama concerns a man (Aidan Quinn) who loses his wife, home, and job and is even hit by a bolt of lightning. He then resolves to defy God by breaking all of the Ten Commandments. Since this, like most commercial American movies, is about capitalist male ownership, the bad luck of the hero’s wifenot to mention the welfare of his community relative to his lossesis never remotely at issue; what’s at stake is God’s respect for a man’s private property. With Courteney Cox and Anthony LaPaglia. (JR)… Read more »

Shall We Dance?

Its paper-thin characters turned into caricatures by egregious hamming, this 1996 Japanese comedy drama about shy ballroom dancers is sentimental goo and downright interminable. Clearly pitched to the Strictly Ballroom market, it’s strident and glib enough to corner it. Good luck and all that, but count me out. Written and directed by Masayuki Suo. In Japanese with subtitles. PG-13, 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow play best friends who decide with some trepidation to attend their high school reunion. Despite the aggressive silliness of this enjoyable comedy, the emotional focus on the painful social experience of high school makes the film real and immediate, and the flavorsome dialogue in Robin Schiff’s script gives the leads a lot to work (as well as play) with. Directed fairly well by David Mirkin, though this movie really belongs to the actresses and screenwriter. With Janeane Garofalo. Evanston, Ford City, Lake, Lincoln Village, Norridge, 600 N. Michigan, Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo.… Read more »

Burden Of Truth [SLING BLADE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 25, 1997). — J.R.

Sling Blade

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton

With Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, J.T. Walsh, Natalie Canerday, Lucas Black, James Hampton, Rick Dial, and Robert Duvall.

There is no point in rendering something realistically unless it is to make it more meaningful in an abstract sense. In this paradox lies the progress of the movies. — Andre Bazin

In one of the unfortunate casualties of film history and criticism, writer-director-performers are generally approached as performers and/or directors first and as writers second, yet it’s often the writerly impulse that gives birth to both the performance and the direction. Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin are seldom regarded as the writers of Foolish Wives and City Lights respectively, but without their scripts neither the performances nor the films themselves would exist. Orson Welles, habitually described as a director and actor, insisted throughout his career that he always started with the written word, not with free-floating ideas for “shots.”

So it was a matter of some satisfaction to me that Billy Bob Thornton wound up getting an Oscar last month not for his lead performance in Sling Blade or for its direction but for his script.… Read more »

Traveller

The subject’s nice — a clan of Irish con artists operating in the rural south — but the movie breaks down into separate pieces, some fresher than others, without much cumulative force. Directed by former cinematographer Jack Green (who’s shot eight Clint Eastwood movies as well as Twister) from a script by Jim McGlynn, the story centers on the adventures of a seasoned scam veteran (coproducer Bill Paxton) and his young protege (Mark Wahlberg), though a love interest eventually turns up in the form of a single mother (Julianna Margulies) who becomes the target of one of the duo’s schemes. James Gammon is around for additional grit, and there’s loads of country music on the sound track. (JR)… Read more »

The Cyclist

Made between The Peddler and Marriage of the Blessed, this 1989 Iranian feature by the highly talented Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a filmmaker comparable in some ways to Martin Scorsese, follows the exploitation of an Afghan refugee who embarks on a bicycle marathon in order to raise money for his wife’s medical expenses. A searing expressionist work about man’s inhumanity, filmed in a hypnotic and feverish style. With Moharram Zaynalzadeh and Esmail Soltanian. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, April 24, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo from “The Cyclist”.… Read more »

Chasing Amy

After running off the rails in Mallrats, writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) not only returns to form but surpasses himself in this touching romantic comedy about comic book artists. The immature hero (Ben Affleck) falls in love with a bisexual woman (Joey Lauren Adams) with a promiscuous past, then struggles to come to terms with his own hang-ups. Neither PC nor crudely anti-PC, this tough and tender movie, like its characters, is prepared to take emotional risks, and the comic book milieu is deftly sketched in. With Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, and Smith himself, who recounts an anecdote near the end explaining the film’s title. Evanston, Golf Glen, Lake, Norridge, 600 N. Michigan, Webster Place.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of “Chasing Amy”.… Read more »

Paradise Road

Inspired by history, writer-director Bruce Beresford’s story about European, Australian, and American women who try to flee from Singapore during World War II but wind up as POWs of the Japanese in Sumatra is worthy but rather pedestrian stuff. Frances McDormand gets to show off by playing a German Jew, and Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett, Joanna Ter Steege, and Wendy Hughes do creditable jobs of their own. But the inspirational aspects of the talewhich mainly has to do with the determination of Close to form a vocal orchestra at the camp, despite the class divisions between the womennever quite carry the dramatic impact they’re supposed to. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

This was originally published by the French film magazine Trafic in April 1997. (For a later commentary about episode 4a of Histoire(s) du cinéma, which focuses on Alfred Hitchcock, go here.) –J.R.

Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

The following text derives from two particular film festival encounters: (1) a roundtable on the subject of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, held in Locarno in August 1995; (2) some time spent with Godard in Toronto in September 1996. I participated in the first event after having seen the first four chapters of Godard’s eight-part video series; unlike the other members of the roundtable — Florence Delay, Shigehiko Hasumi, and André S. Labarthe — I’d been unable to accept Godard’s invitation to view chapters 3a and 3b, devoted to Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, in Switzerland a few days prior to the event. A little over a year later, Godard brought these chapters and a still more recent one — 4a, on Alfred Hitchcock — with him to Toronto, where he was presenting For Ever Mozart, and showed me these three chapters in his hotel room over two consecutive evenings. We also had some opportunities to discuss the series (in English); some of our conversation was recorded, but much of it wasn’t.Read more »

On Mohsen Makhmalbaf

From the Chicago Reader (April 11, 1997). I’ve suppressed the title/headline originally given to this piece, which I greatly regretted at the time, “Tortured Genius”. There are a few contributions of my own here that I also regret, but, for the record, I’ve decided to let this text stand. — J.R.

Films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

It’s tempting but dangerous to approach artists from exotic cultures in terms of more familiar reference points — such as comparing Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou to The Postman Always Rings Twice or reading Souleymane Cisse’s Brightness as if it were an African Star Wars, as some American and English critics have done. Yet to describe the styles and visions of the two major Iranian filmmakers of the 80s and 90s, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I’ve been exploring comparisons to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a project obviously fraught with booby traps, but one that clarifies some of the important differences between these two major figures.

Last June the Film Center brought us seven features and nine short films by Kiarostami, and this month it’s showing ten features and one short documentary by Makhmalbaf, as well as three documentaries about him (one of them Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-up).… Read more »

Chasing Amy

After running off the rails in Mallrats, writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) not only returned to form but surpassed himself with this touching 1997 romantic comedy about comic book artists. The immature hero (Ben Affleck) falls in love with a bisexual woman (Joey Lauren Adams) with a promiscuous past, then struggles to come to terms with his own hang-ups. Neither PC nor crudely anti-PC, this tough and tender movie, like its characters, is prepared to take emotional risks, and the comic book milieu is deftly sketched in. With Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, and Smith himself, whose anecdote near the end explains the film’s title. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Anaconda

If snakes give you the willies, and big snakes even more of them, and having the willies is a desired state, this 1997 adventure about a documentary film crew doing battle with a 40-footer in the Brazilian rain forest may be just what you’re looking for. But you’re going to have to put up with a lot of silly characterizations and labored plot turns, not to mention some fast cutting that doesn’t mesh well with the picture’s ‘Scope format and a ridiculous shot looking out through the snake’s jaws. Jon Voight, the all-purpose villain, does a pretty good job of imitating Marlon Brando imitating a Paraguayan snake expert, but the rest of the playersincluding Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Owen Wilson, Vincent Castellanos, Jonathan Hyde, and Kari Wuhrerseem to be in a hurry to pick up their checks. Luis Llosa directed the makeshift script by Hans Bauer, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr. (JR)… Read more »

Murder At 1600

One reason I prefer this mystery thriller about murder in the White House to Absolute Power is that its politics are liberal rather than neocon, and there’s no gratuitous Hillary bashing. But hey, it’s also a better mystery and a better thriller toonothing that makes undue claims for itself, but entertaining and put together with craft and economy. Wesley Snipes (a D.C. homicide detective) and Diane Lane (a dissident Secret Service agent and former Olympic sharpshooter) team up to solve the mystery; others in the cast include Alan Alda, Daniel Benzali, Ronny Cox, and Dennis Miller. Dwight Little directed the script by Wayne Beach and David Hodgin. (JR)… Read more »

Grosse Pointe Blank

Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Minnie Driver, and Joan and John Cusack star in this 1997 comedy directed by George Armitage (Miami Blues), about a hit man who returns home for a high school reunion. The odd premise is promising, but despite some early indications from the two Cusacks and Arkin that it’s going to be funny, it winds up an unholy mess that becomes steadily more incoherentmorally, dramatically, and conceptually. Alas, not even an ace like Armitage can save it. Written by Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack, who also coproduced; Barbara Harris appears in a cameo as the hero’s mother. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Prole Models [CITIZEN RUTH & INVENTING THE ABBOTTS]

This appeared in the April 4, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Citizen Ruth

Rating *  (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Alexander Payne

With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren.

Inventing the Abbotts

Rating *** (A must see)

Directed by Pat O’Connor

Written by Ken Hixon

With Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Will Patton, Kathy Baker, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joanna Going, Barbara Williams, and Michael Sutton.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

The best insight into 20th-century repression I’ve encountered recently is contained in Sidney Blumenthal’s piece about Whittaker Chambers in the March 17 issue of the New Yorker. Chambers “lived in a time when it was easier to confess to being a [communist] spy than to confess to being a homosexual,” Blumenthal notes. He also remarks that Chambers’s behavior as a spy — “furtive exchanges, secret signals, false identities” — resembled his behavior as a homosexual, and that he “and a pantheon of anti-Communists for whom conservatism was the ultimate closet — J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Francis Cardinal Spellman — advanced a politics based on the themes of betrayal and exposure, ‘filth’ (as Hoover called it) and purity.Read more »