Monthly Archives: September 1998

The Impostors

A painfully unfunny period farce (1998) by writer-director-coproducer-costar Stanley Tucci (Big Night), though people who laugh at just about anything might be amused. In the 30s, two unemployed actors (Tucci and Oliver Platt) wind up on a luxury cruise, and the various complications call to mind Hope and Crosby fleeing from various Paramount back-lot villains. The secondary cast runs from Elizabeth Bracco, Steve Buscemi, and Alfred Molina to Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott, and Lili Taylornot to mention a cameo by Woody Allenand the ambience is intricately labored, stridently energetic, and about as familiar as yesterday’s toast. (JR)… Read more »

A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In “Billy,” the first of the film’s three sections, an expatriate novelist in Paris (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Barbara Hershey) adopt a six-year-old French boy who’s initially resented by the couple’s natural daughter. “Francis,” set a few years later, recounts the daughter’s friendship with an eccentric American schoolmate (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and Jane Birkin has a field day as his doting single mother. Yet these last two characters, as well as the family’s maid (Dominique Blanc) and her boyfriend (Isaac de Bankole), disappear in “Daddy,” which follows the family’s return to the States once the siblings are teenagers and the father’s health is deteriorating. The three parts add up to a rather lumpy narrative, and the characters are perceived through a kind of affectionate recollection that tends to idealize them, but they’re so beautifully realized that they linger like cherished friends. This is Ivory’s best film since Mr.… Read more »

The Eel

The Eel

An intriguing tale of moral regeneration from Shohei Imamura (Eijanaika, The Ballad of Narayama, The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology), adapted from Akira Yoshimura’s novel Sparkles in the Darkness. A white-collar worker spends eight years in prison after brutally murdering his wife and her lover; released to the supervision of a Buddhist priest in a small coastal town, he becomes a barber and relates almost exclusively to a pet eel he adopted while incarcerated. After saving the life of a suicidal woman who resembles his late wife, the barber makes her his assistant, yet the growing bond between them is complicated by her crazed mother and her ex-lover. The film brims over with various eccentrics (the barber’s ufologist neighbor and a former prison mate who harasses the hero and delivers drunken tirades), and Imamura views them all with mixed amusement and curiosity; he also does striking things with dream sequences and visual and aural flashbacks. At Cannes this shared the 1997 Palme d’Or with Taste of Cherry, and though I don’t consider it on the same level, it’s absorbing throughout and a good deal more accessible. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 18 through 24. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Talking Pictures: Scott MacDonald on Cinema 16

From the Chicago Reader (September 11, 1998). The illustration comes courtesy of Paul Cronin, who found it in Amos Vogel’s papers in Wisconsin. — J.R.

Talking Pictures: Scott MacDonald on Cinema 16

Cinema 16 application

During its penultimate season I was lucky enough to be a member of the groundbreaking New York film society Cinema 16, where I got my first taste of Robert Bresson and Jacques Rivette. Run by Amos and Marcia Vogel between 1946 and 1963, Cinema 16 was special because it presented all kinds of “marginal” works that no one else was showing at the time. This lecture-presentation by Scott MacDonald — a specialist in independent and experimental film who’s edited a collection of scripts and three invaluable volumes of his own interviews with filmmakers — will include not only a historical account of Cinema 16′s work but a selection of remarkable shorts shown there, including Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) and Eaux d’Artifice (1953), Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943), Robert Breer’s Cats (1956), and, from abroad, Arne Sucksdorff’s A Divided World (1948) and Georges Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts (1949). Franju’s film, a late addition to the program, is an extraordinary documentary about the everyday workings of a Paris slaughterhouse that manages to be shocking, lyrical, and highly moral–a good example of the great work Chicagoans almost never get to see.… Read more »

Antz

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

If one can accept the revolting notion that ants are just like people — rather than the more demonstrable premise that some film workers, film publicists, and filmgoers are a little like ants — then one might easily find this 1998 computer-animation effort from Dreamworks as cute as its title. The real premise is that ants are just like superstars — people like Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, and Jennifer Lopez, all of whom have lent their voices and screen personalities to ant characters. For example, Allen, in truth an emblem of herd instinct, inevitably is employed to represent individuality — in the form of an ant named Z who resembles E.T. and kvetches a lot. Disneyfied anthropomorphism is the name of the game here, and I was left wondering whether Pepsi paid for the use of Give Peace a Chance (rendered here as Give Z a Chance). I suspect an account of all the complex business transactions would be more fun than anything in the movie, where you can’t see a blue sky that doesn’t resemble the Dreamworks logo. PG, 83 min.… Read more »

The May Lady

A serious and interesting but unsuccessful feature by Iran’s most famous woman filmmaker, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1997), focusing on a divorced documentary filmmaker and her teenage son. The issues broachedsuch as whether the heroine can date men without alienating her son and what makes an ideal mother (the subject of her documentary in progress, of which we see several samples)are important, but this is an issue-driven rather than character-driven film, and without fully realized characters it comes across as somewhat flat. Not even a poetic offscreen narration by the heroine, including quotes from Persian poetry, can paper over the gaps. For much of the time we’re kept deliberately distant from the charactersmany sequences consist of cars on freeways accompanied by voice-oversbut one isn’t persuaded that a closer look would teach us more. (JR)… Read more »

No. 16, Barkhor South Street

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

no-16-barkhor-south-street

The fascinating thing about this award-winning feature-length documentary (1996) by Duan Jinchuan from mainland China is that it often seems to approximate the work of Frederick Wiseman in showing us the everyday workings of contemporary society — although the society in this case is one we generally know little about. The focus here is on a neighborhood committee in Lhasa, Tibet, where citizens go to settle family disputes, petty thieves and other delinquents are chastised and advised, community finances are computed, and street vendors are regulated, among many other activities. This doesn’t register like a thesis-driven film, though the preparations for an official ceremony celebrating the Chinese occupation of Tibet towards the end certainly has its creepy side, and one that implicitly rhymes with the other forms of patriarchal rule that one has witnessed in most of the preceding segments. (JR)… Read more »

Rounders

The dubious and overrated John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), a specialist in making reductive new versions of other people’s movies, directs a script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman that’s a tiresome rip-off of The Hustler, with poker (in a New York Russian Mafia milieu) taking the place of pool, Matt Damon taking over for Paul Newman, and John Malkovich’s scenery chewing supplanting Jackie Gleason’s self-effacement. Gretchen Mol, Edward Norton, John Turturro, Martin Landau, and Famke Janssen costar; they’re all pretty good, but not good enough to make this 1998 feature worth seeing. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In Billy, the first of the film… Read more »

Just Write

A potentially charming, almost fairy-tale premise for a romantic comedya Hollywood tour-bus driver (Jeremy Piven) who cruises past the homes of celebrities meets a movie star (Sherilyn Fenn) and pretends to be a screenwriter, thus ushering him into a potential romance and a taste of the local high lifeprogressively loses its air and becomes a mainly lugubrious experience because the script (by Stan Williamson) is so formulaic and threadbare. Andrew Gallerani, in his first feature as a director, does a pretty good job with the actors, but they need better material than they’re handed here. With JoBeth Williams, Alex Rocco, Jeffrey Sams, and Wallace Shawn. (JR)… Read more »

Phoenix

Another noirish heist movie stained by drippings from The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, and, yes, Reservoir Dogs. Written by newcomer Eddie Richey and directed by English-born Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd), this boasts occasional signs of intelligence , atmosphere, and style as well as some nicely lit ‘Scope cinematography around Phoenix, Arizona, by James L. Carter (One False Move). But, alas, there’s very little forward motion. Coproducer Ray Liotta, playing a cop with gambling debts who organizes the heist, is asked to carry the whole picture on his back; he can’t be blamed if periodically it slides off. Despite some able work by Anjelica Huston, Tom Noonan, and Giancarlo Esposito, among others, the material and its inflection seem entirely too familiar. With Anthony LaPaglia, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven, and Brittany Murphy. (JR)… Read more »

Pillow Talk

This 1959 Doris Day vehicle, costarring Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, launched a cycle of romantic comedies predicated on her character’s chastity; Mark Rappaport unpacked its extended gay-baiting innuendo in his 1992 film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Compulsively mainstream as only 50s Hollywood could be, and never very funny, Pillow Talk won Day an Oscar nomination, and the story and screenplay, by Stanley Shapiro, Russell Rouse, and others, actually copped an award. Directed by Michael Gordon; with Thelma Ritter, Nick Adams, Julia Meade, Allen Jenkins, Lee Patrick, and William Schallert. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Touch Of Evil

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

After seeing the work print of his last Hollywood feature, Orson Welles wrote a lengthy memo requesting several changes in editing and soundwork that was carried out in 1998 by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch with myself as consultant. About the original 95-minute 1958 release (superseded since the mid-70s by a 108-minute preview version), Dave Kehr wrote, “Eternal damnation to the wretch at Universal who printed the opening titles over the most brilliant establishing shot in film history — a shot that establishes not only place and main characters in its continuous movement over several city blocks, but also the film’s theme (crossing boundaries), spatial metaphors, and peculiar bolero rhythm.” These titles now appear at the film’s end — yielding a final running time of 111 minutes — and in the opening shot Henry Mancini’s music comes exclusively from speakers in front of the nightclubs and from a car radio. Other changes involve different sound and editing patterns and a few deletions, all of which add up to a narrative that’s easier to follow, but there’s no new or restored footage. To quote Kehr again, “Welles stars as the sheriff of a corrupt border town who finds his nemesis in visiting Mexican narcotics agent Charlton Heston; the witnesses to this weirdly gargantuan struggle include Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, and Joseph Calleia, who holds the film’s moral center with sublime uncertainty.” (JR)… Read more »

Gadjo Dilo

The title of Tony Gatlif’s 1997 French feature is Romany for crazy stranger; the stranger, our main point of identification, is a young scholar and music buff from France who scours the Romanian countryside looking for a legendary singer until a direct and extended encounter with Gypsy culture throws him for a loop. The third part of Gatlif’s Gypsy Trilogyafter Latcho Drom (which I revere) and The Princes (which I haven’t seen)this is a pretty good romantic comedy with neither the formal originality nor the musical excitement of Latcho Drom, though it’s certainly watchable and entertaining throughout. In French with subtitles. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Halloween: H20

The seventh Halloween film has been marketed as the last, which may actually turn out to be the case, as there’s an earnest and successful attempt to give the series a satisfying closure. Jamie Lee Curtiswho made her reputation on the first Halloween but dropped out of the series after the secondis now, 20 years later, teaching at an exclusive private school in northern California, raising a son as a single mother, and once again trying to fend off her murderously insane brother, who won’t stay dead. If you can accept the flouting of logic and credibility that usually goes with this kind of horror picture, this scary and suspenseful genre exercise, chock-full of false alarms and brutal shocks, really delivers, and Curtis approaches the assignment without a trace of condescension. Directed by Steve Miner from a script by Robert Zappia and others; with Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, and Adam Arkin, and an amusing cameo by Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh. (JR)… Read more »