Monthly Archives: June 1997

Men In Black

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play secret agents who take care of immigrant extraterrestrials in this amiable 1997 SF satire directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Addams Family Values) and loosely adapted by Ed Solomon (a veteran of both Bill & Ted movies) from a comic book series. At times the ambience evokes the work of Gremlins director Joe Dante; don’t expect any psychological depth here, but the cool wit and fun (derived partly from the premise that the cheap tabloids are the only newspapers telling the truth) are deftly maintained, and Sonnenfeld provides a bountiful supply of both fanciful beasties and ingenious visuals. With Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, and Tony Shalhoub. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Temptress Moon

I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese director Chen Kaige’s work, but this opium dream about incestuous longings is clearly his best piece of direction, stylistically voluptuous and pictorial in the best sense. Shot by the remarkable Christopher Doyle, perhaps the most talented cinematographer working in Asia, and starring Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, it’s full of ravishing poetry, even though it isn’t very involving on a narrative level. Since its Cannes premiere it’s been cut by ten minutes or so and decked out with titles intended mainly to clarify the story line and distinguish characters (the usual aim of Miramax’s compulsive meddling), but this has done damage to the film’s hypnotic and hallucinatory rhythms, especially in the early sections. Once one gets past this choppiness, Chen’s use of offscreen sounds as emotional and atmospheric punctuation and his exquisite uses of color, lighting, framing, and camera movement conspire to make this a beautifully overripe example of Baudelairean cinema. Shu Kei wrote the elliptical script, based on a story by the director and Wang Anyi, set in and around Shanghai from 1911 to sometime in the 1920s. Water Tower. (JR)

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The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp and other short films

“The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp” and other short films

This may be the most exciting and revealing program in the Film Center’s entire Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. It includes Fassbinder’s two earliest surviving shorts, City Tramp (1966) and Little Chaos (1967), to be shown without subtitles, and a subtitled 1977 interview with the filmmaker–none of which I’ve seen. But I can’t recommend highly enough the selections I have seen: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s 23-minute The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968) is a multifaceted poetic provocation (starring Fassbinder as the pimp) that consists of only a dozen shots, one of them an 11-minute condensation of a 1926 play by Ferdinand Bruckner staged by Straub. Also a startling eye-opener is Fassbinder’s searingly and touchingly confessional episode from the 1978 sketch film Germany in Autumn, which shows him with his lover and his mother and is probably the most candid of all his self-portraits. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, June 22, 4:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

Ulee’s Gold

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1997). — J.R.

On the strength of this film and Ruby in Paradise, Florida independent Victor Nuñez may actually be the best director of actors in American movies right now. See what he does here with someone as unpromising as Peter Fonda, not to mention Jessica Biel, J. Kenneth Campbell, and the wonderful Patricia Richardson. When the beauty of his writing is factored in with the solid, patient realism of his direction — in both his adaptations (Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green) and his more recent originals — he seems to be one of our most adept novelistic filmmakers as well. The only limitation of his fourth feature is a story that’s fairly familiar, both as an account of personal redemption — Fonda as a Vietnam vet, beekeeper, widower, and grandfather trying to hold the remainder of his family together — and as a crime story involving the former cronies of the veteran’s wayward and incarcerated son. Still, this is so stylistically fresh and sensitively nuanced that you aren’t likely to mind much. (JR)

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Rough Magic

A Critic’s Choice for the Chicago Reader (June 6, 1997). — J.R.

In an era when the only fantasies grown-up critics are supposed to validate are preschool ones, here’s a charming and decidedly offbeat adult fantasy-comedy (1995) from the stylish English director Clare Peploe (High Season). In the early 50s, around the time of Nixon’s Checkers speech, a magician’s apprentice (Bridget Fonda) who’s engaged to a corrupt and wealthy politician (D.W. Moffett) runs off to Mexico in search of a sorceress after witnessing an apparent murder. Eventually she links up with a couple of guys (Russell Crowe and Jim Broadbent) who have separate reasons for being interested in her magic. Adapted by William Brookfield, former film critic Robert Mundy, and Peploe from James Hadley Chase’s novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, this visual treat recalls the whimsical postwar fantasies of Lewis Padgett (the pen name of writing team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore). The period flavor is witty and concise, the magic — which ultimately includes a talking dog and a man turning into a sausage — fetching and full of twists. (Fine Arts) — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Try to imagine a Russ Meyer porn movie about LA teenagers crossed with an early scatological John Waters opus and punctuated with outtakes from Natural Born Killers; you’ll have a rough idea what Gregg Araki is up to in this hyper, scattershot movie, whose own publicity compares it to a Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid. Even if the compulsively kaleidoscopic visual style (ten times too many close-ups for my taste) and scuzzy dialogue are such that only one moment out of seven makes much of an impression, there’s still plenty to be amused or nauseated by: phrases like Whatev (a reductio ad absurdum of west-coast verbal sloth), Dogs eating people is cool, and You smell like a wet dog; a face getting beaten to a pulp by an unopened can of tomato soup (making one wonder if Campbell’s paid for the product placement); blood-spattered walls color coordinated with a tacky floral bedspread; flashes of kinky straight sex and tender homoeroticism; periodic appearances by the Creature From the Black Lagoon; and so onadding up to loads of flash and minimal substance. The cast includes James Duval, Rachel True, Christina Applegate, Debi Mazar, and Chiara Mastroianni, and there are loads of guest appearances.… Read more »

Illustrious Corpses

A 1976 Italian feature by Francesco Rosi adapted from Leonardo Sciascia’s novel Il contesto. Like most of Rosi’s films during this period, it’s a political expose in the form of a detective thriller. With Lino Ventura, Tino Carraro, Alain Cuny, Tina Aumont, Fernanado Rey, and Max von Sydow. (JR)… Read more »

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold

Francesco Rosi adapts Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel about twin brothers plotting to kill a man with the complicity of their small town. This 1987 film, shot on location in Colombia, uses a mosaic flashback structure common to both the novel and many of Rosi’s previous features. (JR)… Read more »

Batman & Robin

Try not to leave a mess when you die, intones Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) in this loud, uninspired, and interminable third sequel; but the movie doesn’t take her advice. There’s a lot of designer leather and designer heavy metal and one designer disco set after another, plenty of tacky camp references to Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, plus Star Wars beasties, AIDS metaphors, computer details, stupid cold puns from Arnold Schwarzenegger (playing villain Mr. Freeze), and dollops of insincere sentimentality involving the heroes’ butler (Michael Gough). But it’s clear that writer Akiva Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher are bereft of ideas and using the MTV clutter as a cover-up. A few nice moments are offered by spunky Alicia Silverstone, but the standard for humor and ingenuity is set by Robin (Chris O’Donnell) calling Batman (George Clooney this time around) a dick. With Pat Hingle and Elle Macpherson. (JR)… Read more »

Speed 2: Cruise Control

Speed made millions on mindless, empty thrills; this laborious sequel is just as mindless and empty but lacks the thrills. Peter Bogdanovich discovery Sandra Bullock is back, her low-key lifelikeness all but defeated by a script (courtesy of Randall McCormick, Jeff Nathanson, and producer-director Jan De Bont) that flounders interminably. In place of Keanu Reeves we get Jason Patric, at his dullest yet as the cop; in place of the bus we get a luxury liner in the Caribbean; and in place of mad bomber Dennis Hopper we get disgruntled computer whiz Willem Dafoe, who’s really a good actor when he’s actually given a character to play. But there’s nary a character to speak of herejust one good explosion and one spectacular and extended disaster, badly directed. Both come too late in the game to carry much of a wallop. Even Andrzej Bartkowiak’s deft cinematography, which gave Speed much of its spark, is replaced by the shaky, semiunwatchable work of Jack N. Green. Do yourself a favor and see a movie instead. (JR)… Read more »

For Roseanna

Lots of Italians, or actors playing Italians, scream in English and wildly gesticulate for the benefit of the American tourists (meaning us) in this mainstream comedy about a villager (Jean Reno) trying to secure a plot for his terminally ill wife (Mercedes Ruehl) in an overcrowded local cemetery. The ambience here is amiable enough, though the plot also manages to get playful chuckles out of such complications as a character shooting himself. Paul Weiland directed from a script by Saul Turteltaub; with Polly Walker and Mark Frankel. (JR)… Read more »

Hard Eight

A pared-down crime thriller set mainly in Reno, this first feature by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is impressive for its lean and unblemished storytelling, but even more so for its performances. Especially good is Philip Baker Hall, a familiar character actor best known for his impersonation of Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, who’s never had a chance to shine on-screen as he does here. In his role as a smooth professional gambler who befriends a younger man (John C. Reilly), Hall gives a solidity and moral weight to his performance that evokes Spencer Tracy, even though he plays it with enough nuance to keep the character volatile and unpredictable. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom have meaty parts, are nearly as good, and when Hall and Jackson get a couple of good long scenes together the sparks really fly. (JR)… Read more »