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 »
Monthly Archives: July 2000
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 »
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 »
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 second part (roughly the second half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000); for the first half, go here. The illustration below is from the now out-of -print English edition. — J.R.
Is the Cinema Really Dead?
Susan Sontag’s essay “A Century of Cinema” — a generational lament whose validity for me both rests on and is partially thrown into doubt by its generational stance — has by now appeared in many languages around the world as well as in many different English-language publications, including the The New York Times Magazine (February 25, 1996), the “movie issue” of Parnassus: Poetry in Review (volume 22, nos. 1 & 2, 1997), The Guardian, and at least two book-length collections of essays. I’ve noted many interesting variations in this piece as it’s appeared in various settings, and assume that some of these represent subsequent revisions or afterthoughts on Sontag’s part. But the most striking differences appear between the ﬁrst version published in America — in The New York Times Magazine, with the strikingly different title “The Decay of Cinema” — and all the others, and I assume that these, including the title, stem from editorial interventions, or at the very least collaborations between Sontag and her editor or editors at the Times.… Read more »
The first part (roughly the first half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000). The second half will be posted tomorrow; the illustration below is from the now out-of-print English edition. — J.R.
Is the Cinema Really Dead?
[The] early nineties have not been as encouraging as the early seventies.. . . It is not as easy now to believe in the medium’s vitality or its readiness for great challenges. So many of the noble figures of film history aredead now, and who can be confident that they are being replaced? . . . .The author sees fewer films now. He would as soon go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game. 
It has become harder, this past year, to go back in the dark with hope or purpose. The place where “magic” is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity, and floors sticky from spilled sodas. Forlornness hangs in the air like damp; things are so desolate, you could set today’s version of Waiting for Godot in the stale, archaic sadness of a movie theater.… Read more »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
As the neo-Freudian title suggests, this Robert Zemeckis thriller starts off as a psychological horror movie in which a central role is played by the viewer’s imaginationit’s in the sort of zone where Val Lewton’s low-budget horror films of the 40s excelled. A somewhat edgy Vermont housewife (Michelle Pfeiffer) married to an ambitious geneticist (Harrison Ford) begins to suspect foul play in their neighborhood, and that’s coupled with the possibility that their house may be haunted. While the guessing game continues the movie sustains a certain elegance, but as things start getting explained one swallows increasing amounts of guff, and when all the important facts are known the movie loses every ounce of integrityheaping contempt on characters and spectators alike while stretching out its climax to absurd lengths. Once upon a time, commercial filmmakers concluded movies in a hurry after shaky denouements in the hope that spectators wouldn’t notice; today, it seems they cynically assume that viewers are too hungry for mindless thrills to care whether dead characters spring back to life or live ones change their personalities according to the needs of the moment. With Diana Scarwid. Written by Sarah Kernochan and Clark Gregg. 126 min. (JR)… Read more »
The title monster’s heart is removed and shipped to Japan, where radiation from the Hiroshima bomb causes it to grow; years later a giant monster terrorizes the countryside. Ishiro Honda directed this low-grade Japanese monster film from 1965, shot in Toho ‘Scope; with Nick Adams. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »