Daily Archives: July 1, 2000

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 »


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 »

What Lies Beneath

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 »

Frankenstein Conquers The World

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 »

Jack’s Wife

An early (1972) George A. Romero horror item about a neglected suburban housewife dabbling in witchcraft. The editing is bold and original, the satirical tone and raw style distinctly un-Hollywood, but while it anticipates Romero’s Martin (1978) by locating the supernatural in the midst of middle-American banality and boredom, its dramatic inflections are relatively low-key. Also known as Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Man Wanted

A businesswoman (Kay Francis) hires a male secretary (David Manners) in this 1932 romance. William Dieterle directed a script by Charles Kenyon; with Andy Devine and Una Merkel. 60 min.… Read more »

Who Else If Not Us

This Russian feature directed by Valery Priemykhov is a good example of a mediocre foreign film that’s worth seeing because of what it shows us about the country it’s set in. Two Russian youths from the sticks loot a department store in Moscow and head back home on a raft; one of them gets caught and sent to prison for a year. The performances are variable, the lip sync is lousy, the story less than enthralling. I also didn’t warm to the disco version of Albinoni heard on the sound track or the hokey use of slow motion. But the opening sequence, set in a huge and opulent shopping mall where the boys encounter a drag queen, made my jaw drop, giving me an image of Moscow that contradicted most of what I imagined about the place, and other details of contemporary Russian life kept me interested most of the way through. (JR)… Read more »

Wind With The Gone

Alejandro Agresti’s 1998 Argentinean feature, set in a small town in Patagonia in the 70s, sounds intriguing. It’s about the strange cultural life that develops at the small local cinema, where films that have outlived their usefulness elsewhere are shown with their reels scrambled. The locals form a cult around a French actor whose films are especially incoherent, and after receiving a lot of fan mail from these admirers the actor, now retired and living in Paris, decides to pay them a visit. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Jour De Fete

Jacques Tati’s first feature (1947), a euphoric comedy set in a sleepy village. As in all of his features, the plot is minimal: during Bastille Day festivities, the local postman (Tati) encounters a newsreel about streamlined postal delivery in America and attempts to clean up his act accordingly. But the exquisite charm of this masterpiece has less to do with individual gags (funny though many of them are) than with Tati’s portrait of a highly interactive French village after the wara view of paradise suffused with affection and poetry. 79 min. (JR)… Read more »

Satan In High Heels

Meg Myles plays a burlesque dancer in a carnival who moves to New York, starts working in a ritzy nightclub, and sleeps with both her boss and his son. Jerald Intractor directed this low-budget sleaze item (1962, 90 min.) from a script by John T. Chapman. (JR)… Read more »