Monthly Archives: July 2000

Hollow Man

Paul Verhoeven’s well-paced and watchable action thriller, about a scientist (Kevin Bacon) working for the Pentagon who makes himself invisible, is less of a social satire than his other recent features (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers)despite the glancing suggestion in Andrew W. Marlowe’s screenplay that the scientist’s ugly mischief with his discovery is nothing compared to what the Pentagon’s might be. In fact, this is an old-fashioned exercise in horror-suspense, with first-rate special effects and, as is usual with Verhoeven, an attractive and stylish mise en scene that verges on hyperrealism in its clarity of line. Even when the film reverts to formula, which is fairly often, it does so with polish. It’s also recognizably Verhoevenian in its graceful storytelling (apart from a few holes in the central premise), its appreciation of strong-willed women (top honors to Elisabeth Shue and Kim Dickens) and erotic power struggles, and its dark humor about adolescent males (Bacon is an absolute creep from the beginning). It’s also, like his other films, the work of a macabre moralist who’s fascinated by the shape of our worst impulses, though it’s not terribly interesting on the subject this time around. With Josh Brolin, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.… Read more »

Coyote Ugly

Another piece of phony uplift from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who brought us Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and, more recently, Armageddon and Gone in Sixty Seconds. This onea sort of Flashdance/Urban Cowboy concoction with a dash of Cocktailclearly doesn’t believe its own jive for a second. It’s about a songwriter (Piper Perabo) from New Jersey who comes to the big city and winds up shaking her ass at a raucous country-western bar, meanwhile dating an Australian dishwasher (Adam Garcia) and trying to convince her widower father (John Goodman, trying hard to be sincere) that he shouldn’t feel ashamed about her job. David McNally directed a script by Gina Wendkos. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Five Senses

Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa’s watchable and sensitive first feature, Eclipse (1994), was one of those narrative daisy chains in the manner of La ronde. This one’s another, and in some respects it’s even better, not only more ambitious (as in the various ways the five senses are worked into the crisscrossing story lines) but more nuanced. The main characters include a widowed massage therapist (Gabrielle Rose), a cake baker (Mary-Louise Parker) who can’t speak the same language as her Italian lover (Marco Leonardi), a couple of sexually transgressive teenagers (Nadia Litz and Brendan Fletcher), a house cleaner (Daniel MacIvor) who hunts down old lovers in the belief that true love has a particular smell, a French eye doctor (Philippe Volter) who’s going deaf, and a little girl who disappears. The story didn’t fully answer all my queries about the characters, but did such a nice job of keeping me interested that I wound up appreciating the mysteries that remained. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

I’m The One That I Want

This feature-length film (2000) of Margaret Cho’s potent one-woman show recalls the early stand-up films of Richard Pryor 20 years ago. There’s the same confessional fervor and pain-ridden comedy deriving from a restaging of traumas having to do with identity crises and substance abuse. As a 31-year-old Korean-American, former alcoholic, star of a discontinued sitcom, and self-described fag hag, Cho has plenty of issues of her own. But there’s a similar kind of hilariously cathartic autocritique as she examines her efforts to lose weight and become less Asian when her sitcom was in jeopardy, and her priceless impersonations of her mother offer a pungent concentrate of her complex responses to racism. It’s hard to think of many more galvanizing definitions of what it means to be an American than Cho’s volcanic self-assessments. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sorrow and the Pity

the-sorrow-and-the-pity

The cinema has produced few more impressive pieces of investigative journalism than this epic 1971 documentary by Marcel Ophuls — 260 minutes long, plus a 15-minute intermission — about the German occupation of France. Ophuls, son of the great Max Ophuls, devotes the first part to the fall of France, the second part to everyday life during the Occupation up through the Liberation. In both parts he focuses on the city of Clermont-Ferrand, not far from Vichy, and the heart of the film consists of relaxed interviews with survivors — French as well as German, resistance fighters as well as collaborationists — and newsreels and propaganda films from the period. The interviews are dated somewhat by the dearth of female subjects (only one out of the 36 principal speakers, and a Petain supporter at that); women are often visible, but apart from the occasional interjection they function mainly as domestic decor. One of the film’s abiding strengths is Ophuls’s refusal to rely on easy ironies or facile divisions between heroes and villains, despite his implicit emphasis throughout on ethical issues. Near the beginning and end of the film he employs the unsettling technique of freezing the frame while the subject’s voice continues, which suggests that even the “frozen” past still has fresh things to tell us.… Read more »

Trixie

Writer-director Alan Rudolph, working from a story written with John Binder, calls this a screwball noir, which suggests both the film’s charm and limitations. It’s an oddball vehicle for Emily Watson, who’s a security cop spouting endless malapropisms while uncovering corruption around a casino. The charm resides in the performances by Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy, and Lesley Ann Warren, as well as in the stylish mise en scene, but the characters and plot seem slightly shopwornnoir is used more as formula than as a means of discovery or commentary. (By contrast, Rudolph’s previous feature, Breakfast of Champions, unreleased locally except on video, is one of his best.) Expect something lightweight and you shouldn’t be disappointed. 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

American Pimp

What’s so disturbing yet provocative about this documentary by Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) is that it essentially celebrates as well as interrogates its chosen subject. More precisely, it allows the pimps it interviews to celebrate themselves, offering them the equivalent of their own music videos in which to strut their stuff. Even if one disapproves of the resultsit’s hard not to, given the countless obfuscations and omissions ensured by such an approachthere’s also more understanding of a certain kind than would come from a holier-than-thou polemic. One has to weigh the lift against the mystifications. There isn’t the sort of analysis one would hope to find (the Hugheses even sidestep the issue of whether pimps are as important to prostitution as they once were), but at least one gets a pungent look at what makes being a pimp look attractive to some people in certain circumstances. Check it out for yourself; I’ve felt at least as conflicted about the Hughes brothers’ other movies, but this one arguably accomplishes and says the most. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Short and Sweet: Kiarostami’s Experimental Origins

A sidebar for Film Comment (July-August 2000). –- J.R.

Viewers feeling flummoxed by Kiarostami’s features might have an easier time with his shorts. The most important are the nine he made between 1970 and 1982 for the film division of the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which he co-founded in 1969. Assigned to make educational films, Kiarostami scoured a ‘National Film Board of Canada catalog for ideas, regarding Norman McLaren as one of his guides. More than one of his shorts uses animation: So Can I (1975) juxtaposes the movements of cartoon animals with a live-action boy’s imitations. Kiarostami’s only previous gigs had been making commercials and credit sequences for features, and from what he told me recently, he didn’t consider himself a film artist at the time.

But he took the job seriously, and what emerged are experimental films in the best sense, without pretension, akin in form to what Brecht called “learning-plays”. I don’t mean that they offer political critiques of the state of Iran or the state of Islam, as some American commentators seem to feel all Iranian films should. They’re designed to help kids reflect on ethical, aesthetic, and practical issues ranging from the virtues of brushing one’s teeth (Toothache, 1980) to the specific properties of color and sound.… Read more »

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first major film (1966, though banned and unseen until 1971), 185 minutes long, cowritten by Andrei Konchalovsky, about a 15th-century icon painter. This medieval epic announced the birth of a major talent; it also stuns with the sort of unexpected poetic explosions we’ve come to expect from Tarkovsky: an early flying episode suggesting Gogol, a stirring climax in color. Not to be missed. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Chicago, Wednesday, July 12, 7:00, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

The Letter

This doesn’t approach the achievement of Manoel de Oliveira’s previous feature, Inquietude, the highlight of last year’s festival and my favorite film of 1998. But the 34th film of Portugal’s greatest filmmaker maintains his usual cool audacity, fearlessly courting absurdity at every turn. Now that he’s in his early 90smaking him the only living filmmaker who worked before the coming of soundyou might say he’s entitled to his dry conceptual wit; but this wasn’t the position of the members of the American press at Cannes when The Letter won the jury prize, many of whom seemed scandalized. An adaptation of Madame de La Fayette’s classic 1678 novel about court intrigue and unrequited love, La princesse de Cleves, transplanted into contemporary European high society and played out in designer clothes, it simply and brutally juxtaposes two eras 300 years apart to elicit not easy laughs but sustained, amused disbelief. The heroine, suffering stoically in a passionless arranged marriage, is not so much played as embodied by Chiara Mastroianniwhose mother (Catherine Deneuve) was cast in de Oliveira’s The Convent and whose father (Marcello Mastroianni) was in his Journey to the Beginning of the World. Even less acted is the object of her concealed love and lust, the famous Portuguese pop singer Pedro Abrunhosa, imperturbably playing himself as an incongruous stand-in for the duke of Nemours.… Read more »

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad

Gordon Hessler directed this 1974 British feature, whose main raison d’etre is some first-rate Dynamation special effects from Ray Harryhausen, including a ship’s figurehead that springs to life and Sinbad crossing swords with a six-armed statue. With John Phillip Law and Caroline Munro; Harryhausen collaborated with Brian Clemens on the script. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Target Shoots First

Christopher Wilcha’s fascinating feature-length video reminds us how seldom we’re allowed to see certain businesses operating from the inside. Wilcha, a 22-year-old college graduate and alternative-rock enthusiast, was hired by the Columbia Record and Tape Clubapparently as a fluketo help launch a whole new niche-marketing division, which brought him face-to-face with the contradictory meanings of the term alternative once it’s been embraced by the mass market. He brought his video camera to work every day, and what emerges are selective glimpses ofand thoughtful reflections onhis extended stint with the company. He notes the mythological and practical differences between various floors of the company’s Manhattan headquarters and shows what happens at the national headquarters elsewhere; he describes how the club’s guide is written and edited, how changes in staff affect his own peace of mind, and how certain people behave at parties and staff meetings. This is a good deal better than your typical 60 Minutes segment, registering as autobiography as well as investigative reporting, and Wilcha’s wry intelligence kept me glued to the screen. (JR)… Read more »

Shower

This likable comedy-drama from mainland China cogently demonstrates that some of the best old-style Hollywood pictures nowadays are apt to come from almost anywhere except Hollywood. This is a nostalgic look at the last days of a traditional bathhouse before it’s leveled for urban renewal, a movie about community that actually calls to mind something like The Last Picture Show. Zhu Xu (who turned up recently in the title role of The King of Masks) is very effective as the old man who runs the bathhouse, and so are the actors playing the mentally challenged son who lives and works with him and an older son who comes to visit. Writers Liu Fen Dou and Cai Xiang Jun and director Zhang Yang move freely and gracefully between fantasy and reality in this sentimental 2000 film, which never becomes as trite or calculated as you might fear, maybe because mentally challenged characters aren’t the same kind of standbys in Chinese cinema as they are on Oscar night. In Mandarin with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

There’s Always Vanilla

Possibly the most obscure feature by independent horror specialist George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear) is this pungent little romantic comedy from 1972, also known as The Affair, about an antiestablishment type (Ray Laine) getting involved with a woman who acts in TV commercials (Judith Streiner). One of the few Romero films written by someone else (Rudolph J. Ricci), it has a good eye for the kind of unglamorous middle-class life seldom seen in American movies (occasionally it even recalls John Cassavetes’s Faces, released four years earlier), and it’s highly evocative of the early 70s. It may not be an unqualified success, but I prefer it to the subsequent Knightriders, another personal effort in which Romero stepped outside the horror genre. (Interestingly enough, the only scene here reflecting Romero’s horror-movie orientationas well as his Catholic backgroundinvolves the heroine’s trip to an abortionist.) 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Luminous Motion

Bette Gordon’s strange and singular American independent feature (the follow-up to her 1983 debut, Variety) premiered at the Locarno film festival in 1998so why have we had to wait two years to see it in Chicago? The Locarno crowd can’t be any stranger or smarter than we are, so perhaps the director of the festival simply trusts and respects his patrons more than American distributors trust and respect us. Like Time Regained, an even better film that’s playing this week at the Music Box, Luminous Motion explores a mental landscape with some visual flair, according equal status to imagination and reality. Its hero and narrator is a precocious ten-year-old (Eric Lloyd) who’s unwilling to share his beautiful, seductive, dysfunctional, and drifting mother (Deborah Kara Unger of Crash) with anyone, including his father (Jamey Sheridan), whom she left years ago. After she settles down with a suburbanite (Terry Kinney), the son poisons him, though the man returns as a ghost to offer the boy advice. Part oedipal scenario, part dreamy road movie, the film offers so many left curves (including bouts of petty theft and black magic) that you may not always know how to respond, but Gordon is so visually and stylistically inventive and the actors are so skillful that you aren’t likely to lose interest.… Read more »