Monthly Archives: October 1997

Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part Two)

As the Chicago International Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, the remaining schedule includes plenty of things worth seeing. Most of these, however, will open here in the weeks or months ahead: 4 Little Girls (to be shown at the Music Box and eventually on HBO), The Sweet Hereafter (expected to open around Christmas), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (sometime next year), and Love and Death on Long Island (February). Less likely to turn up in the foreseeable future and eminently worth seeing are The Life of Jesus and the short film The Spitball Story. And though I can only recommend them guardedly, Artemisia (which Mirimax, in a burst of inspiration–and with its usual indifference to the workings of festivals, the press, and filmgoers–has just decided to rename Untitled Agnes Merlet Project) and Post coitum, animal triste are also unlikely to return. For the rest, check out the capsules below and follow your instincts. (Reviews preceded by a check mark are especially recommended by the reviewer.)

The festival runs through Sunday, October 19, with screenings at the 600 N. Michigan theater. Tickets can be bought at the festival store (located in the Viacom Entertainment Store at the theater) or at the box office an hour before show time. Read more

The Devil’s Advocate

God save us when director Taylor Hackford decides to become a metaphysician and Al Pacino decides to demonstrate his genius by reading the phone bookor, to be precise, a script only slightly less repetitive and long-winded. Keanu Reeves plays a hotshot Florida lawyer who’s lured with his wife (Charlize Theron) to sin-filled Manhattan aka Babylon by a huge law firm overseen by Satan aka John Milton (Pacino), who rolls his eyes and gesticulates to show how clever and charismatic he is. Hackford makes this awkwardly told story go on forever, throwing in special effects whenever he suspects we might be napping, and eventually turns it all into a (you guessed it) cautionary fable with a couple of glib twists at the end. At half its present length it might make an OK midnight camp item. With Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, and Craig T. Nelson; written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy from a novel by Andrew Neiderman. (JR) Read more

Fairytale: A True Story

A charming, watchable, but ultimately unsatisfying British feature (1997) about celebrated photographs of fairies made by two little girls in 1917. The gullible Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played here by Peter O’Toole) fell hook, line, and sinker for this hoaxconfessed to much later by one of the perpetrators on her deathbed. But rather than set about explaining or describing the hoax (as science writer Martin Gardner has cogently done), this film, as the title coyly suggests, prefers to treat it as fact or metaphor or fable about real fairiesanything but the actual boondoggle it was. If you can’t swallow this malarkey, at least you can enjoy the special effects and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. Directed by Charles Sturridge from a screenplay by Ernie Contreras; with Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath, Paul McGann, and Phoebe Nicholls. PG, 97 min. (JR) Read more

The End of Violence

The End of Violence

A cool contemplation of the relation of violence to American culture, this is easily Wim Wenders’s most watchable and entertaining movie since Wings of Desire (1988). Bill Pullman plays a wealthy producer of violent action movies who is kidnapped; Andie MacDowell plays his wife, and others in the cast include Gabriel Byrne as a surveillance expert, Traci Lind as a stuntwoman, Loren Dean as a police inspector, and K. Todd Freeman as a gangsta rap producer. The witty script is by Nicholas Klein, and the sense of LA space and drift is nicely caught. Fine Arts.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still. Read more

Not Dead Yet

The 33rd Chicago International Film Festival

When people ask me to compare the Chicago International Film Festival to other festivals, it’s hard to know how to respond. I attend some festivals as their guest, and for the past four years I’ve gone to Cannes as a member of the New York film festival selection committee. As part of that same stint, which just concluded, I’ve also spent two weeks in New York in late summer for the last four years previewing seven or eight dozen additional films. I go to some other festivals–Berlin two years ago, Vienna later this month–as a jury member. By contrast I don’t “attend” the Chicago festival in the same fashion, because I’m usually too busy coordinating the Reader’s coverage of the event, not to mention the paper’s coverage of current releases and the International Children’s Film Festival. The closest I’ve come to attending in any extensive way was in 1992, when I served on the main jury and therefore saw all the films in competition–creating a logistical nightmare that entailed staying at a downtown hotel with my fellow jurors and thus relating to Chicago and the festival as if I were a tourist.

Being what it is and coming when it does, the Chicago festival can’t help but be something of a hand-me-down event, skimming items from various international festivals that precede it and adding a few selections of its own. Read more

Washington Square

I still haven’t figured out why there’s an apparent necessity to transfer most of Henry James’s fiction to the screen, especially when it seems perfectly at home on the page. But in the mechanical run-through of the James oeuvre that’s been carried out in recent years by film companies stuck for ideas, this is the best English-speaking adaptation I’ve seennot nearly as good as The Innocents (1961), but still better to my taste than either Merchant-Ivory’s or Campion’s, not to mention a good many lesser lights. Directing a script by Carol Doyle, Agnieszka Holland coaxes a performance out of Jennifer Jason Leigh that’s less tic ridden and show-offy than usual, and veterans Albert Finney and Maggie Smith fare even better; the only serious mistake here is Ben Chaplin’s pointless impersonation of Montgomery Clift in The Heiress (a 1949 film based on the play derived from the same novella). The period flavor is charming and Holland’s feeling for the moral nuances seems fairly Jamesian; still, why exactly we need this movie when we already have the book is anybody’s guess. (JR) Read more

Playing God

The X-Files’s David Duchovny plays a drug-addicted doctor who loses his license and is then hired by a drug lord (Timothy Hutton) to perform impromptu surgery after gunfights. Although Andy Wilson’s direction never gets beyond the pedestrian, the script by Mark Haskell Smith makes this slightly better than average as a crime thriller; back in the 50s it would have been strictly routine. With Angelina Jolie, Michael Massee, and Peter Stormare. (JR) Read more

The House is Black

The House Is Black

Forugh Farrokhzad’s 20-odd-minute, black-and-white 1962 documentary about a leper colony in northern Iran is the most powerful Iranian film I’ve seen. Farrokhzad (1935-’67) is commonly regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony–people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play–that’s spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. This beautiful 35-millimeter print, longer than the video that was a Critic’s Choice last March and recently subtitled for the New York film festival, will be sent back to Switzerland after these two screenings, so don’t expect to see it again in the foreseeable future. On the same program, four recent Iranian videos, all made for the same new private production company in Iran: The Day the Aunt Was Ill by Hannah Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen); The Project by Abbas Kiarostami and his son Bahman, in which the father acts out the leading role in his masterpiece The Taste of Cherry as a “visual screenplay” for the film to come; Ardekoul, a documentary on the recent Khorasan earthquake by Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon); and Iraj Karimi’s Tehran’s World War Cemetery. Read more

Creosote and More: Videos by Eric Saks

Creosote and More: Videos by Eric Saks

Eight years have passed since Eric Saks released his remarkable first feature, the pseudodocumentary Forevermore: Biography of a Leach Lord, but judging from this eye-opening collection of videos, which he’ll present in person, he hasn’t been idle. Touch Tone (1995), reportedly also available in a graphic novel version, loosely recalls Forevermore in its overall form: a hallucinatory first-person monologue preoccupied with technology plays over a surreal collage of processed images. Combining all sorts of found materials, the film at times evokes the animated work of Louis Klahr. The sinister KNBR (1993) employs fatuous radio talk over home movies and obscure printed titles, all of it apparently grouped around the subject of Torrance, California. Gun Talk (Part 1) (1991) features Sluggo from the comic strip Nancy and various nightmarishly masked and voice-distorted individuals discussing firearm-related experiences. But none of these quite prepared me for Saks’s latest work, the 42-minute Creosote. In infernal black and white and spooky multiple exposure, it recounts a fractured narrative as creepy as any of the millennial visions found in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. A scary and essential program. Kino-Eye Cinema at Xoinx Tea Room, 2933 N. Lincoln, Friday, October 3, 7:00, 773-384-5533. Read more

The Spitball Story

Jean Bach, director of the remarkable A Great Day in Harlem, utilizes the same techniques of oral history and thumbnail jazz portraiture to tell the story of why Dizzy Gillespie was fired from the Cab Calloway band and how this transformed his career. This isn’t on the same level as Bach’s previous film, but it’s still a precious document, especially for its footage of Gillespie shortly before his death. 21 min. (JR) Read more

Voyage To The Beginning Of The World

Born in 1908, Manoel de Oliveira is the only working director anywhere in the world who started his career in the silent era. For this meditative feature he enlisted the somewhat younger Marcello Mastroianniin what proved to be Mastroianni’s last performanceto play someone very much like de Oliveira, an aging film director named Manoel setting out on a car trip with a few of his coworkers. Basically an exploration of the director’s Portuguese roots and the French and Portuguese roots of one of the actors, the film is laden with memories both personal and historical, and associations both cultural and familial; a moving (as well as slow-moving) road movie, it resembles many of de Oliveira’s other works in its paradoxical combination of 19th-century modernism and aristocratic Marxism. Not the least of its oddities is the fact that it starts out as a film about Manoel, then shifts focus halfway through to the French actor Jean-Yves Gautier, whose father was Portuguese and who’s meeting his Portuguese aunt for the first time. On the basis of a single viewing, I wouldn’t call this a great film on the level of de Oliveira’s Doomed Love or his recent Inquietude, but it’s one of his best since Valley of Abraham and one of his most accessible. Read more


I’m sorry I haven’t been able to preview this 1994 first feature by German filmmaker Fred Kelemen, a former cameraman for Bela Tarr; Susan Sontag has called it a visionary, one-of-a-kind achievement, and others whose taste I respect have been praising it for years. Consisting of a dozen sequences, many of them shot and choreographed in single takes, the film unfolds in a single evening in a grim, post-cold-war Europe populated by displaced people. Groping for comparisons, partisans of this film have mentioned Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky; if I were in town, I’d certainly check it out myself. (JR) Read more

Chantal Akerman By Chantal Akerman

Made for the prestigious and long-running French TV series Cinema de notre temps (originally known as Cineastes de notre temps), this 1996 self-portrait by the highly talented Belgian-born filmmaker consists mainly of clips from her previous films, but the selection and arrangement of these are canny and subtle, and Akerman’s on-camera introduction is touching and revealing. It’s an excellent introduction to her work, though the many glimpses offered here of her best filmsnotably Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, From the East, and Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brusselscan’t really take the place of seeing these works whole. (JR) Read more

Floating Weeds

Not to be confused with the Yasujiro Ozu film of the same title, this is a two-part, two-and-a-half-hour made-for-TV video by Edward Yang, supreme modernist of the Taiwanese New Wave. His first work as a director, this 1981 video is the tale of a girl from the country town of Joufen (subsequently used in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness) who comes to to Taipei with dreams of entering the entertainment industry. (JR) Read more

The Terrorizers and Expectations

Expectations (1982), also known as Desires, is a first film of Edward Yang, a major filmmaker of the Taiwanese new wave, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien. A suggestive and affecting sketch made for the episodic feature In Our Time, it concerns a girl in primary school during the 60s who harbors a secret crush on a university student staying at her house. The Terrorizers (1986),Yang’s evocative and deliberately ambiguous third feature, pivots around a chance encounter between a rebellious Eurasian girl and a novelist and housewife who decides to leave her husband, a lab technician. As Taiwanese film critic Edmund Wong has noted, the film offers a refreshing look at Yang’s theme of urban melancholy and self-discoverya preoccupation running through Yang’s early work that often evokes some of Antonioni’s poetry, atmosphere, and feeling for modernity. Well worth checking out. (JR)

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