This ambitious, Altman-esque tapestry by writer-director Tim Robbins re-creates various events involving art, patronage, and politics during the mid-1930s, all revolving around the Federal Theater’s legendary New York production of Marc Blitzstein’s socialist opera The Cradle Will Rock and its suppression by the U.S. Congress. One could make countless legitimate complaints about the film’s details, ranging from its unsympathetic (and unconvincing) treatments of Blitzstein, producer John Houseman, and 22-year-old stage director Orson Welles to its crackpot theory that Nelson Rockefeller decided to foist abstract art on the American public for political reasons. But there’s something stirring and gutsy about this evocation of collective ferment–not to mention timely, in the wake of the Seattle uprising against the World Trade Organization–and some of Robbins’s reflections on federal arts funding (including debates at the 1936 hearings of the Dies Committee that come straight from the congressional record) are especially pungent. Linking such figures as Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, William Randolph Hearst, and Federal Theater director Hallie Flanagan, Robbins trashes star politics in every form, denigrating artists in favor of artworks, but glories in populist expression wherever he finds it, including in Blitzstein’s dated opera. The large and impressive cast includes John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Murray, Cary Elwes, and Angus MacFadyen. Read more
Yearly Archives: 1999
A lighthearted, low-rent lampoon of Star Trek and its cult, this is also a characteristic piece of committeethink from DreamWorks: it wants to leave no base uncovered and therefore tries periodically to reproduce certain Star Trek action thrills without mocking them. Overall it’s what it aspires to bea pleasant time waster. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman are the three leads, but many of the best laughs come from Tony Shalhoub. Directed by Dean Parisot from a screenplay by David Howard and Robert Gordon. 102 min. (JR) Read more
Though the writer-director is Neil Jordan, not Anthony Minghella, and the source novel is by Graham Greene, not Michael Ondaatje, the male lead is Ralph Fiennes and this 1999 feature is clearly designed to be another The English Patient. In that endeavor the film succeeds pretty well, but whether it does full justice to Greene is another matter. The book is my favorite of this author’s, and one aspect that the movie captures quite nicely is romantic nostalgia for the London blitz–a curious emotion also evoked by Gravity’s Rainbow, which learned a great deal from Greene. The underrated 1954 movie version of Greene’s novel, which Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr starred in, Edward Dmytryk directed, and Greene gave grudging approval to, had some of the same quality. This new version is a misty, highly emotional Catholic mystery story with dreamy flashbacks and evocative performances by Julianne Moore and Stephen Rea, and if you’re looking to be romantically captivated, this movie just might do the job. Michael Nyman composed the music. 109 min. (JR) Read more
Historical spectaculars tend to fall into two broad categories: myths of origin (Cecil B. De Mille’s 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments) and more ponderous inquiries into the hero’s personality (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Chen Kaige’s massive 161-minute epic about the unification of China, accomplished by its first emperor during the third century BC, attempts an impossible synthesis of these two categories, beginning with Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king of Ch’in, as a charismatic hero and ending with him as a murderous villain, the mantle of heroism having passed to his former mistress (Gong Li) and the mysterious assassin she enlists to kill him (Zhang Fengyi). Though there’s no physical resemblance, it’s impossible to follow the development of Ying Zheng without thinking of Mao–in some respects the last Chinese emperor–but even without that parallel this is a powerful story and a splendid spectacle. Compared with Maggie Cheung, Gong Li is arguably more an iconic star than an actress, but on this outing she gives a pretty impressive performance. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, December 17 through 23.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
This 1992 French feature by Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) could be the great urban expressionist fantasy of the 90s: like Sunrise and Lonesome in the 20s and Playtime and Alphaville in the 60s, it uses a city’s physical characteristics to poetically reflect the consciousness of its characters. Carax daringly and disconcertingly begins the film as a documentary portrait of the homeless in Paris, but it becomes a delirious love story between two people (Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche) who live on one of Paris’s most famous bridges and experience the whole city as a kind of enchanted playground, a vision that reaches an explosive apotheosis during a fireworks display over the Seine. To realize his lyrical and monumental vision Carax built a huge set in the French countryside that depicted Pont-Neuf and its surroundings, making this one of the most expensive French productions ever mounted, not to mention Carax’s best work to date. Also known as Les amants du Pont-Neuf. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, December 3 through 9.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
This ambitious, Altman-esque tapestry by writer-director Tim Robbins re-creates various events involving art, patronage, and politics during the mid-1930s, all revolving around the Federal Theatre’s legendary New York production of Marc Blitzstein’s socialist opera The Cradle Will Rock and its suppression by the U.S. Congress. One could make countless legitimate complaints about the film’s details, ranging from its unsympathetic (and unconvincing) treatments of Blitzstein, producer John Houseman, and 22-year-old stage director Orson Welles to its crackpot theory that Nelson Rockefeller decided to foist abstract art on the American public for political reasons. But there’s something stirring and gutsy about this evocation of collective ferment, and some of Robbins’s reflections on federal arts funding (including debates at the 1936 hearings of the Dies Committee that come straight from the congressional record) are especially pungent. Linking such figures as Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, William Randolph Hearst, and Federal Theatre director Hallie Flanagan, Robbins trashes star politics in every form, denigrating artists in favor of artworks, but glories in populist expression wherever he finds it, including Blitzstein’s dated opera. The large and impressive cast includes John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Murray, Cary Elwes, and Angus Macfadyen. Read more
James Benning’s 1999 feature consists of 35 shots, each two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California’s Central Valley. The final credits identify each shot according to its subject, the owner of the land, and the locationa token gesture to politicize a survey whose principal interest is formal. The overall effect is of an arrangement of attractive same-size boxes neatly stacked together but not in any particular order. Some are attractive enough and sufficiently mysterious to suggest Joseph Cornell’s surrealist boxes, and at times Benning creates some formal suspense out of the shots’ duration, but the film suffers from a certain repetitiousness, such as the recurrent use of the same horizon line. (JR) Read more
The title’s a good description of the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Melo). This 85-minute entry in the French TV series Filmmakers of Our Time, directed by Michel Leclerc, includes interviews with many of his screenwriters (including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol, and Jorge Semprun) and actors (including Claude Rich), as well as film historian Jean Mitry. (JR) Read more
I haven’t seen Andre S. Labarthe’s two-part 1994 documentary about writer-director and film critic Eric Rohmer, which intersperses clips from his films with an interview conducted by his former Cahiers du Cinema colleague Jean Douchet. But it was part of the excellent, long-running French TV series Filmmakers of Our Time, so it’s bound to be good. (JR) Read more
Only God sees me is a more literal translation of the first part of the French title (Dieu seul me voitVersailles chantiers) of this first feature by Bruno Poldalydes, a comedy about a hero trying to choose between three women. With Denis Poldalydes and Jeaenne Balibar (Late August, Early September). (JR) Read more
This has been called a delightful blend of Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. For better and for worse, and delightfulness aside, this crowd pleaser is a blend of those two pictureswithout, of course, being nearly as good as either one. Whether such a crass and semiincongruous blend makes much sense is another matter. An Italian American (Anthony LaPaglia) wins the first New York lottery on Christmas Eve, 1976, and is so upset about it that he winds up getting arrested for vandalizing a nativity scene in front of a church. Most of the remainder of the movie is a sort of soft GoodFellas flashback, with Danny Aiello chewing up scenery as the hero’s father and Lainie Kazan as his mother, though it returns to 1976 for the Capracorn finale. Apparently most of the story is based on the real-life experiences of Frank Pesce, who plays his own older brother in the movie and coauthored the original story with James Franciscus. This was the directing debut of George Gallo, who scripted Wise Guys and Midnight Run, and he does a fair enough job with the material. (JR) Read more
Francis Coppola’s stylish and heartfelt tribute to the innovative automobile designer Preston Thomas Tucker turns out to be one of his most personal and successful movies. While the tone throughout is basically light, the overall treatmentincluding effective uses of 40s decor, big band music, charismatic performances, and zippy pacingmakes it euphoric. Coppola’s own personal investment in the story (his father invested in Tucker’s cars, and he clearly identifies with many aspects of Tucker’s idealism) gives it an undeniable lift, and Jeff Bridges (as Tucker) and Martin Landau (as his business partner) are especially good in sustaining the movie’s overall high. While the populist orientation of the movie, which relates to Tucker’s extended family as well as his ideals, isn’t delved into very deeplyand the darkness of the ethics of American big business is treated so perfunctorily that it counts for little more than comic shadingCoppola makes the most of his nostalgic Norman Rockwell depiction of benign American individualism. Scripted by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler; with Joan Allen, Frederic Forrest, Mako, and Dean Stockwell (in a fanciful cameo as Howard Hughes), and superb production design and cinematography by Dean Tavoularis and Vittorio Storaro respectively, as well as some inventive camera staging by Coppola. Read more
Su Friedrich’s affecting and potent half-hour Rules of the Road recounts a former love affair in relation to an Oldsmobile station wagon in Brooklyn that she and her lover both used. While the filmmaker exposes some of her recollections and feelings offscreen, practically everything we see unfolds on streets and roads, in the city and country, where similar station wagons are glimpsed everywhere; it’s a heartbreaking demonstration of the precise ways that emotions and memories interact, obsessive and otherwise. (JR) Read more
The only time I’ve watched Louis Malle’s six-hour, seven-part 1968 documentary series in its entirety was 27 years ago, but seeing two sections again recently reminded me why this may be my favorite of all of his films. Malle’s upper-class misanthropy and morbidity have generally alienated me from his work, but this essayistic travel diary avoids any pretense of objectivity in order to present itself as a highly personal search, narrated in excellent English by Malle himself. In the first episode, “The Impossible Camera,” Malle addresses the problem of everyone he meets in India describing the country in Western terms, then goes on to reflect on how his filmmaking affects his subjects; from there he takes in everything from a water buffalo being devoured by vultures to interviews with a few European hippies about why they’re in India. “Dream and Reality,” the fourth part, is centered on Kerala and considers the use of elephants as a workforce, Indians’ reverence for life, the destruction of the environment, and the three political parties comprising Kerala’s communist majority. With his wide-ranging but rambling approach Malle undoubtedly misses or skimps on certain topics, but his mercurial intelligence keeps this lively and fascinating. Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Read more
There’s surely no more famous lost film than Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a silent film made in 1923 and ’24 and released by MGM in mutilated form in late 1924. If you believe the hype of Turner Classic Movies, what’s been lost has now been found–even though the studio burned the footage it cut almost 75 years ago, in order, according to Stroheim, to extract the few cents’ worth of silver contained in the nitrate.
TCM’s ad copy states, “In 1924, Erich von Stroheim created a cinematic masterpiece that few would see–until now.” This is a lie, but one characteristic of an era that wants to believe that capitalism always has a happy ending, no matter how venal or stupid or shortsighted the capitalists happen to be. What TCM really means is that at 7 and 11:30 PM on Sunday, December 5, it will present a 239-minute version of Greed, which is 99 minutes longer than the 1924 release. The 99 minutes aren’t filled with rediscovered footage: instead the original release version has been combined with hundreds of rephotographed stills, sometimes with added pans and zooms, sometimes cropped, often with opening and closing irises. There’s also a “continuity screenplay” dated March 31, 1923, a new score, and varying amounts of ingenuity. Read more