Monthly Archives: July 1998


Well over a dozen movies have by now been made because of Airplane!, a movie closely based on a 1957 potboiler called Zero Hour; among the spin-offs were other lampoons by the same team (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker), then further lampoons by Abrahams (Hot Shots!, Mafia!) and David Zucker (The Naked Gun 2 1/2, BASEketball), while Jerry Zucker went on to direct Ghost. The main difference between Abrahams and David Zucker seems to be that the former cares slightly more about gags while the latter gives slightly more emphasis to character and plot. BASEketball, silly and sometimes likable and written by many hands, works a dumb and dumber premise involving a new sport devised by two geeks (South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone), flogs the premise until it whimpers, and throws in a lot of bad-taste gags for spice. I was bored well before the end, but found the first half hour pretty funny. With Dian Bachar, Yasmine Bleeth, Jenny McCarthy, Robert Vaughn, and Ernest Borgnine. (JR) Read more

Your Friends & Neighbors

This static tale about three dysfunctional couples, Neil LaBute’s first feature after In the Company of Men, could be the biggest disappointment of the year. If the mean-spirited characters of the earlier film offered a political provocation, the ones here reek of Carnal Knowledge and early Edward Albee; they seem left over from theater workshops, which is the only place their generic unpleasantness might possibly work. The cast is OK, and LaBute still has an eye, but the uses they’re put to seem contrived and arty. Filmed in ‘Scope; with Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, Jason Patric, and Ben Stiller. (JR) Read more

The Negotiator

In this Chicago-based thriller, Samuel L. Jackson plays a police negotiator framed for the murder of his partner. Holding hostages in retaliation, he demands the services of a rival negotiator (Kevin Spacey). This is fairly efficient if you can square efficiency with being twice as long as necessary and overly familiar to boot; at least Jackson and Spacey keep it afloat. Directed by F. Gary Gray from a script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox; with David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, and the late J.T. Walsh. (JR) Read more


This relentlessly vulgar Mafia-movie parody from Jim Abrahams (Airplane!, Hot Shots!) begins promisingly with a lampoon of Casino before descending to more predictable hit-or-miss riffs on the Godfather movies. Another descent is made from high spirits to bad vibes, as crassness and cruelty eventually overwhelm any sustained sense of fun. With Jay Mohr, Billy Burke, Christina Applegate, Pamela Gidley, Olympia Dukakis, and Lloyd Bridges in one of his last screen performances; written by Abrahams, Greg Norberg, and Michael McManus. (JR) Read more

Small Soldiers

Small Soldiers

Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers, Matinee) is a national treasure, and his lack of recognition by the general public may actually make it easier for him to function subversively. His unpretentious fantasy romps have more to say about the American psyche, pop culture, and the ideology of violence than anything dreamed up by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. This delightful adventure about war toys running amok in suburban middle America is a synthesis and extension of most of his previous movies, with echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (including some of the satire). The toys in question are the villainous Commando Elite, fashioned using a microchip from the U.S. Defense Department to mercilessly slaughter the noble if freakish Gorgonites, a set of toys programmed (like other minorities one can mention) to hide and to lose; the Ohio citizens who wind up in the cross fire are strictly generic sitcom types, but we wind up caring about them almost as much as we care about the toys. It’s typical of Dante as a pop connoisseur that he adroitly links a creepy sequence about mutated Barbie dolls to Bride of Frankenstein. His films are about not just culture and violence but also everyday cultural violence, something we all have to cope with. Read more

Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 exercise in Oscar-mongering is a compilation of effects and impressions from all the war movies he’s ever seen, decked out with precise instructions about what to think in Robert Rodat’s script and how to feel in John Williams’s hokey music. There’s something here for everybody — war is hell (Sam Fuller), war is father figures (Oliver Stone), war is absurd (David Lean, Stanley Kubrick), war is necessary (John Ford), war is surreal (Francis Coppola), war is exciting (Robert Aldrich), war is upsetting (all of the preceding and Lewis Milestone), war is uplifting (ditto) — and nothing that suggests an independent vision, unless you count seeing more limbs blown off than usual (the visceral opening sequence, showing Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944) or someone getting graphically shot underwater. The story is about a squad trying to find and send home a private whose three older brothers have already been killed in World War II; it’s a mission ordered by General George C. Marshall (backed by the authority of Abraham Lincoln, who’s backed in turn by Spielberg) and executed by Tom Hanks, a captain named John instead of Joe. It has a few pretty good action moments (including a climax straight out of the Indiana Jones trilogy), a lot of spilled guts, a few moments of drama that don’t seem phony or hollow, some fairly strained period ambiance, and a bit of sentimental morphing that reminds me of Forrest Gump; it also lasts the better part of three hours. Read more

High Art

High Art

As storytelling it isn’t always as clean as it might be, but this first feature by writer-director Lisa Cholodenko is an interesting debut for its nuanced sense of character and its terrific sex scenes–scenes that actually serve character development for a change. A 24-year-old assistant editor (Radha Mitchell, shedding her Australian accent) at a chic photography magazine shares an apartment with her boyfriend but becomes infatuated with an older woman from a well-to-do family (Ally Sheedy), who occupies the apartment over hers; once a well-known art photographer, the woman now inhabits a drug scene and lives with an addicted German actress. When she and the young editor start having an affair, neither is quite sure what’s happening at first–and to Cholodenko’s credit neither are we. With Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, and Tammy Grimes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 3 through 9. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

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


Though advertised as an Andy Warhol film when it came out, Joe Dallesandro’s 1969 debut feature was actually directed by Paul Morrissey, and it was his first feature too. A rambling and sometimes funny tale of a low-energy hustler who goes to work to pay for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion, the film consists largely of the one-on-one encounters that characterized most of the dramatic Warhol Factory releases. (JR) Read more

I Think I Do

Writer-director Brian Sloan has a nice, loose way of handling his actors, and his decision to locate this gay screwball comedy in a world of mainly straight peoplespecifically a circle of George Washington University students and (a few years later) alumni, some straight and some gaygives this breezy feature a certain freshness. In most other respects, however, this is a movie we’ve all seen several times before and can expect to see many times again. With Alexis Arquette, Maddie Corman, Guillermo Diaz, Marianne Hagan, Jamie Harrold, Christian Maelen, Lauren Velez, and Tuc Watkins. (JR) Read more

Henry Fool

Hal Hartley’s ambitious 1997 feature has a precise sense of everyday life in a working-class neighborhood of Queens: the sense of community, the casual desperation of people without defenses, the way people hang out on their front stoops or in the local convenience store. He uses his quirky, almost diagrammatic style to give us two literary archetypes: a repressed garbageman named Simon (James Urbaniak), who supports his invalid mother (Maria Porter) and oversexed sister (Parker Posey) and serves as the local scapegoat, and the title hero (Thomas Jay Ryan), a rebellious autodidact with a prison record who rents Simon’s family’s basement flat and encourages Simon to write. When Simon goes on to become a celebrity while his teacher remains mired in trouble and obscurity, a more abstract design begins to take shape. What eventually emerges isn’t nearly as achieved or convincing as the neighborhood portrait, but even when it ultimately overwhelms the characters, it’s full of juice, humor, and nuance. R, 137 min. (JR) Read more


I haven’t seen this legendary and rarely screened French film in ‘Scope, but it should be well worth checking out. Director John Berry was a longtime member of Orson Welles’s Mercury repertory company, working as an actor on stage and radio and sometimes as a director; because he was also a communist, his promising Hollywood career as a film director (From This Day Forward, He Ran All the Way) was cut short by the blacklist. He emigrated to France, where he spent most of the remainder of his career, though he returned to the U.S. in the 70s to make, among other films, the wonderful ghetto comedy Claudine. Tamango (1957), loosely based on a story by Prosper Merim Read more

Smoke Signals

Good-natured but haunting, elliptical and repetitive as narrative but extremely likable, this is a poignant and sometimes funny story about two young Native American men (Adam Beach and Evan Adams) who travel from their Idaho reservation to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of an estranged father of one of them. Directed by Chris Eyre and adapted by Sherman Alexie from stories in his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, this 1998 film has been billed as the first feature written, directed, and coproduced by American Indians, and while its general notations about being Native American are nothing to sneeze at, its particularities are the best thing about it. Gary Farmer, who was so memorable in Dead Man, gives an equally impressive but more abbreviated performance as the father, and the others in the cast portray the kind of characters you wind up remembering. PG-13, 88 min. (JR) Read more

Chicago Short Comedy Video And Film Festival 1998

I watched all but one of the shorts on the second of the two programs that constitute this festival, and, much as I hate to say this, I didn’t laugh once. I suspect seeing some of the clips with an audience might make a difference, but how much of a difference would depend on how eager that particular assembly was to laugh. Some of the works here are worth looking at simply because they’re weird (Noel Olken’s Mr. Peach’s Dinner Party), extreme (Joe Ryan’s The Western), unsettling (a clay-animation effort called The Boy With the Flip-Top Head), or nicely designed (Bubble Quandary), but none of them was actually funny. (JR) Read more

Drifting Clouds

Finnish mannerist Aki Kaurismaki (Ariel, The Match Factory Girl, Leningrad Cowboys Go America) takes on the theme of contemporary unemployment in a tender love story that, by his own account, places Frank Capra’s emotional rescue story It’s a Wonderful Life in one extreme corner and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in the other, and the Finnish reality in between. The film was conceived in part for actor Matti Pellonpaa, who died before it went into production; it’s now dedicated to his memory, and a photograph of him as a boy plays a key role in the emotional orchestration. Despite some careful color coordination in the sets and some quiet humor in the mise en scene and plot, not to mention a mournful seriousness in the overall treatment of the theme, this is arguably one of those instances in the filmmaker’s touching but reductive minimalist oeuvre where less becomes less (1996). In Finnish with subtitles. 96 min. (JR) Read more


An antiseptic, unemotional police procedural (1997, 96 min.) set in northern Norway, where an ace Swedish police sleuth (Stellan Skarsgard) turns up to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl and (surprise, surprise) winds up demonstrating he’s fairly screwed up himself. The style of director and cowriter Erik Skjoldbjaerg in this first feature is clipped and crisp, and much is made of the action’s transpiring inside the arctic circle during the season when there’s no night, but I had a much easier time nodding off than the hero. It’s nice to see a genre film from abroad for a change, but I would have preferred one with an interesting character or two, not to mention a livelier plot. In Norwegian with subtitles. (JR) Read more