Yearly Archives: 1994


To paraphrase French critic Michel Mourlet on Charlton Heston, Michael Douglas is an axiom, which means, in the case of this 1994 spin-off, that if you’ve already seen Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct you know in advance what the politics will be: strong women in positions of power are just fine as long as they aren’t sexually dominant and obey middle-class rules of propriety. Douglaswhose lopsided facial expressions come in two basic settings, constipated/thwarted lockjaw mode and glib/preening grin modeplays a Seattle computer executive who’s sexually importuned by former girlfriend and present boss Demi Moore; when he refuses to go all the way with her she accuses him of sexual harassment. Michael Crichton’s novel served as the basis of Paul Attanasio’s script, which is directed by Barry Levinson; the silly melodrama has some watchable as well as pleasurable moments, including two good sex scenesone between Douglas and Moore and one between Douglas and Donald Sutherlandand an interesting use of the company office as a location milked for various paranoid effects. Much less winning are a total lack of plausible motivation when it comes to Moore’s character (as in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, naked lust after Douglas’s bod is supposed to explain everything) and the improbable uses of high-tech virtual reality. Read more

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s best film (1993) doesn’t so much forgo the shameless and ruthless manipulations of his earlier work as refine and direct them toward a nobler purpose. Working from a well-constructed script by Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) adapting Thomas Keneally’s nonfiction novela fascinating account of the Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,100 Polish JewsSpielberg does an uncommonly good job both of holding our interest over 185 minutes and of showing more of the nuts and bolts of the Holocaust than we usually get from fiction films. Despite some characteristic simplifications, he’s generally scrupulous about both his source and the historical record. One enormous plus is the rich and beautiful black-and-white cinematography by onetime Chicagoan Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg’s capacity to milk the maximal intensity out of the existential terror and pathos conveyed in Keneally’s bookPolish Jews could be killed at any moment by the capriciousness of a labor camp director (Ralph Fiennes)is complemented and even counterpointed by his capacity to milk the glamour of Nazi high life and absolute power. Significantly, each emotional register is generally accompanied by a different style of cinematography, and much as Liam Neeson’s effective embodiment of Schindler works as our conduit to the Nazis, Ben Kingsley’s subtle performance as his Jewish accountant, right-hand man, and mainly silent conscience provides our conduit to the Polish Jews. Read more

La Triche

The title translates as the cheat; a French police thriller, directed by a woman, Yannick Bellon, involving a male couple, which was voted best film at the New York Gay Film Festival, with Victor Lanoux, Xavier Deluc, Valerie Mairesse, and Anny Duperey. Read more

Vanya On 42nd Street

In this 1994 feature by Louis Malle, Andre Gregory directs a street-clothes production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (as adapted by David Mamet) in the ruins of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theatre. Based on actual run-throughs of the play, seen by audiences of only 20 or 30, the film adroitly captures a well-honed production and incidentally unites Malle with the cowriters and costars of My Dinner With AndreGregory and Wallace Shawn (who plays Vanya). Not all of Chekhov’s social themes survive the contemporary trappings, but thanks to Gregory’s sensitive direction each actor shines. Julianne Moore and Larry Pine are especially impressive, and even a technically limited character actor like Shawn outdoes himself (albeit without quite filling Vanya’s shoes). Malle adeptly eases us into the play so we can’t tell at what precise moment Chekhov takes over, an ambiguity that becomes the film’s triumph as well as its key limitation. 120 min. (JR) Read more

The Travelling Players

By critical consensus the greatest Greek feature ever madecertainly the most praised and generally considered the best work of Theo Angelopoulos, the most celebrated of all Greek filmmakers. Running just a little short of four hours, and made during the military dictatorship (1975), the film concerns a troupe of actors whose traveling production of a rural folk drama is repeatedly interrupted by political events that wind up polarizing it. Made in a style of long takes, slow camera movements, and spare editing that has led some critics to compare Angelopoulos to both Michelangelo Antonioni and Miklos Jancso, this landmark picture is said to offer a sustained metaphor for Greek history from 1939 to 1952. (JR) Read more

Trapped In Paradise

If Frank Capra had directed the Three Stooges in a Disney Christmas release, the results would have been considerably better than this godawful Fox comedy (1994) by writer-producer-director George Gallo. During the holiday season, brothers Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey decide to knock off a bank in Paradise, a small Pennsylvania town oozing with goodwill and low-grade Capracorn. Even the weather seems tailored to the script’s shifting needs (one river is iceless, the others completely frozen over) as the bumbling brothers struggle to make their escape, and only Florence Stanley as their hard-nosed mother shows enough smarts to play this farrago with some semblance of style. With Madchen Amick, Donald Moffat, and Richard Jenkins. PG-13, 112 min. (JR) Read more

The Fire This Time

PBS has refused to show Randy Holland’s powerful, illuminating feature-length documentary video (1993) about South Central Los Angeles, no doubt because it offers an analysis of unemployment and oppression that implies an active conspiracy–an analysis offered mainly by people who live there. If this sounds dubious in a few particulars, it’s still the most cogent and persuasive portrait of this ghetto and its determinations that I’ve seen, and unless the Republicans come up with a better explanation this one will have to stand, with or without PBS’s dubious seal of approval. The video traces the rise of the ghetto gangs to the destruction of Black Panther leadership by the police and the FBI in the 60s, to the continuing preference of the white community for building prisons (the one government program they still support) rather than hospitals, schools, parks, or recreation centers, and to the refusal of local building crews to employ qualified blacks. It’s worth adding that the gang members argue that the ready availability of drugs and firearms is largely attributable to the police and that the unvoiced agenda of the white middle class is that ghetto residents should destroy one another. This agenda is remarkably close to that of conservative filmmaker John Carpenter in his SF thriller They Live. Read more

A Place in the World

This 1991 Argentine-Uruguayan production by Argentinean writer-director Adolfo Aristarain, nominated for an Academy Award before being disqualified on a technicality, is better than most foreign Oscar nominees. Aristarain compares the plot, which involves the recollected adolescence of a boy growing up in Argentina’s Bermejo Valley, to that of Shane, but this hardly does it justice. The boy’s parents are an idealistic Jewish doctor (Cecilia Roth) and sociology professor turned schoolteacher (Federico Luppi) who’ve helped found a cooperative of poor shepherds with an outspoken and committed nun. The Shane figure is a Spanish geologist-mercenary hired by the principal landowner in the region. All these characters, along with the illiterate daughter of a local foreman the boy falls in love with, are treated with a novelistic density and ambiguity, and you’re likely to remember them afterward as you would real people. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 25 through December 1. Read more

A Place In The World

This 1991 Argentine/Uruguayan coproduction by Argentinian writer-director Adolfo Aristarain was nominated for an Academy Award before being disqualified on a technicality, and by and large it’s better than most foreign movies that get nominated for Oscars. Aristarain compares the plotwhich involves the recollected adolescence of a boy growing up in Argentina’s Bermejo Valleywith that of Shane, but this hardly does it justice. The boy’s parents are an idealistic Jewish doctor (Cecilia Roth) and a sociology professor turned schoolteacher (Federico Luppi), who have helped found a cooperative of poor shepherds with an outspoken and committed nun. The Shane figure is a Spanish geologist-mercenary hired by the principal landowner in the region; all these characters, and the illiterate daughter of a local foreman the boy falls in love with, are treated with a novelistic density and ambiguity, and we’re likely to remember them afterward as we would real people. Recommended. (JR) Read more

Caro Diario

In his eighth feature (1994), European cult figure and comic Italian writer-director-performer Nanni Moretti offers a graceful, charming, funny, and intimate three-part film essay. The first part, On My Vespa, follows Moretti as he travels around Rome on his motorbike, visiting various neighborhoods (as well as a couple of movies) and ruminating on what he sees; the second chapter, Islands, has him touring a group of islands off the coast of Italy and Sicily with an intellectual friend, searching for a quiet place to do some work; and Doctors, the most straightforward and factual section, chronicles Moretti’s visits to a string of doctors about a mysterious itching ailment and their conflicting diagnoses and prescriptions. For all the wayward digressions of this film (including some fascinating and hilarious notations about the role of television in contemporary Italy), the experience of the three parts is mysteriously and hauntingly unified, and one comes away with an indelible sense of having had human contact. 100 min. (JR) Read more

Heavenly Creatures

New Zealand writer-director Peter Jackson directed this cartoonish 1994 melodrama based on the real-life Parker-Hulme affair, in which two passionately interconnected and obsessive New Zealand teenage girls killed one of their mothers in 1952. Jackson tries to enter as well as celebrate the collective consciousness of the heroines, and though the results are often visually striking, they quickly become glib and mechanical as the lurching zooms and intercut fantasy motifs are repeatedly trotted out like favorite routines. Unlike the campy excess of Jackson’s earlier Dead Alive, this kind of deliberate overkillwhich extends to the broad caricatures of the girls’ families as well as the girls’ feverish fantasy lifeultimately points toward a dearth of ideas rather than a surfeit, though the story remains sufficiently interesting and troubling to hold one’s attention. With Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, and Sarah Peirse. R, 99 min. (JR) Read more


This fruitful collaboration between Chicago independent Joseph Ramirez and Illinois poet Paul Hoover is a major advance over Ramirez’s attempt to yoke cinema with poetry in his first feature, Descent. Shot with a Chicago cast and crew in rural Iowa, Viridian follows the painful adjustments of a divorced young woman and her little boy as they move from one rented farmhouse to another, focusing on her dreams as well as her waking thoughts. Though the plot is minimal, the gorgeous cinematography (by Sean Culver, who also served as editor) and Hoover’s writing, most of which figures as the woman’s offscreen narration, mesh with and complement each other in arresting and mysterious ways. The marriage of lonely figures and landscapes occasionally recalls some of the best features of Jon Jost, and the functional performances by Diane Weyerman, Mathew Brennan, and James Larkin allow Ramirez as well as us to weave meditative moods and reflections around the evocative words and images. Ramirez, Hoover, Culver, and Weyerman will all be present at this world premiere to discuss their work. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 18, 8:00, and Saturday, November 19, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737. Read more

The Professional

In his first American picture (1994), clearly a spin-off of La femme Nikita, nihilist French filmmaker Luc Besson raises the stakes of his popular girl-with-a-gun theme by making the heroine a 12-year-old (Natalie Portman) who learns from a hit man (French movie star Jean Reno) how to handle firearms in order to avenge the slaughter of her family (by a group of sleazy drug barons headed by Gary Oldman). One might assume such a notion to be commercially foolproof, but apparently something or someone intervenedwas it the ratings board or the NRA?and the movie winds up cheating its premise by leaving the girl’s trainer to carry out all the dirty work. For sweaty, suspenseful thriller mechanics the first reel or so is fairly adroit, and action buffs who like explosions probably won’t feel cheated. But the sheer oddness of the New York world constructed for this filmwhere cops and crooks are literally interchangeable, and Oldman and Danny Aiello are stranded in roles that pick over the leavings of earlier partsultimately seems at once too deranged and too mechanical. (JR) Read more


If Ivan Reitman made a family-values comedy about Julia Roberts sprouting a full-blown penis, chances are the results would be called cheap and tasteless; luckily for him, he lives in a culture where he can show Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant instead and be credited for putting across a cute concept. Making it cute is the sight of Schwarzenegger displaying all sorts of wifely attributesfor me, the most offensive part of the movieas the hunk’s tummy gets bigger. (He and a fellow researcher played by Danny DeVito have been experimenting with a fertility drug.) Also important here is the popular idea in our culture (cf Tootsie, The Crying Game, et al) that guys make the best women anyway. To be fair to the filmmakers, Emma Thompson does a very funny job as the inadvertent egg supplier for Schwarzenegger’s infant, and the filmmakers (including screenwriters Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad) work overtime trying to keep the conceit ideologically inoffensive, even to the point of providing a female character (Pamela Reed) who’s pregnant in sync with Schwarzenegger and confusing us all about which part of Schwarzenegger’s body the baby finally emerges from. Truth to tell, this is a traditional (and traditionally bad) Hollywood movie in more ways than I care to name, but at least Reitman and company do their utmost to keep their tastelessness up to date (1994). Read more

The Swan Princess

A group of former Disney workers headed by Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound) put together this formulaic, imitation-Disney animated musical fairy tale (1994). Undemanding kids may be held by it, but adults are likely to think that they’ve seen it all before. The settings tend to be more imaginative than the characters, and one may wonder if the assigning of a French accent to a frog points to some Francophobia on the part of the writers. Among the better-known voices are those of John Cleese, Sandy Duncan, and Jack Palance. (JR) Read more