Monthly Archives: October 1999

Poet Of The Wastes

Technical problems prevented me from viewing all of this charming first feature by Mohammad Ahmadi, written and produced by the great Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Salaam Cinema). But I saw enough to know that the festival’s claim that the film intends to steer absolutely clear of political commentary is inaccurate; an Iranian friend reports that even the script had problems with the censors. This is a satirical comedy about a hapless young garbage collector and two of the people on his route—a poet he wants to emulate and a woman he has a crush on—and it comments on questionable civil service exams and Iran’s high rate of unemployment. In Farsi with subtitles. 81 min. (JR) Read more

Felicia’s Journey

Atom Egoyan’s first major disappointment as writer-director, this isn’t so much uncharacteristic as archetypal, which may be part of the problem. An adaptation of William Trevor’s novel of the same title, the film replays such thematic staples of Egoyan as familial dysfunction, dark secrets, and video, but the overall blend seems both inadequately developed and warmed-over, even though Egoyan’s overall command of filmmaking remains as assured as ever. The plot centers on a penniless and pregnant Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy), in search of her departed boyfriend, who’s taken in by a catering manager (Bob Hoskins) at a factory in Birmingham, England. He’s the lonely son of a glamorous French woman (Arsinee Khanjian) who hosted a TV cooking show in the 50s. Rather than nothing being quite what it seems, everything seems to fall into place according to earlier Egoyan films, which suggests that you’re likelier to enjoy this one if you haven’t seen the others. (JR) Read more

Princess Mononoke

This folkloric animated epic (1997) — set in the 14th century but with ecological trimmings and occasional anachronisms such as hand grenades — was Japan’s all-time box office champ before Titanic. Hayao Miyazaki, who’s often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, directed, and what seems most fascinating about his two-hour movie as an alternative to American animation is the relative absence of anthropomorphism. Even when animals speak, lip sync is avoided; they seem to be communicating almost telepathically, and one seldom feels that they’re contradicting their animal natures. The animation works special kinds of wonders with clouds and mists (particular signifiers in Asian art) as well as moving water, while the violence–featuring blood, amputations, and beheadings — is quite different from what one would expect from a Disney cartoon. Predictably, Miramax’s English dubbing not only alters the plot but features such regional conceits as Billy Bob Thornton as a wily monk and a wolf girl (Claire Danes) who sounds like a Valley girl, but if you can swallow such crudities, the film’s storytelling and heartfelt pantheism are both impressive. Many of Miyazaki’s films are being screened by the Film Center as part of a retrospective on Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio; showing this week is My Neighbor Totoro (see separate listing). Read more

Black Cat, White Cat

There’s something almost wearying as well as exhilarating about the perpetual brilliance of Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Underground). As with some of Fellini’s late works, the energy and inventiveness, not to mention the juicy vulgarity, are so consistent that you feel you can slice into the material at almost any point. In this two-hour slam-bang farce about Gypsies living on the Danube and lorded over by two rival patriarchs, there’s plenty to cherish and enjoy (at least if you can put up with all the cynicism), but I was especially impressed by Bajram Severdzan, hilarious as a nouveau riche gangster. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, October 22 through 28. –Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more

Lifting the Veil

I’ve been speculating in this space over the past couple of weeks that, in spite of the efforts of much of the mainstream press, American isolationism may be declining–at least when it comes to world cinema. The evidence–apart from the impending opening of local art-movie venues and the current Chicago International Film Festival, now in its third and final week–includes the exciting non-American prizewinners at Cannes and Venice, a striking change from past years, bitterly contested or else studiously ignored by our more provincial reviewers, and the announced departure from the New York Times of its first-string film reviewer, Janet Maslin, a prime example of alienated labor when it comes to movies in general.

Another shining example of shrinking American isolationism is David O. Russell’s Hollywood war film Three Kings, which Lisa Alspector’s enthusiastic Reader review persuaded me to run out to see a couple of weeks ago. It’s a skeptical look at this country’s role in the gulf war that, for all its ideological ambivalence and stylistic difficulties, seems a more responsible and accurate reading of that war than any comparable movie made about the Vietnam war. Considering that so far it’s practically the only Hollywood film we’ve had about that war, the accomplishment seems even more impressive, and makes it an honorary foreign movie of sorts, even with all its action kicks. Read more

Crazy In Alabama

Apart from the settings and the jim crow laws, I didn’t much recognize my home state in this directorial debut of actor Antonio Banderas, adapted by Mark Childress from his own novel and set in 1965. But the movie eventually won my goodwill by fleshing out a couple of my pet notions: that Marilyn Monroe (whom Melanie Griffith’s lead performance repeatedly alludes to) had a kind of prefeminist will to power before pop culture could ever conceive of such a thing, and that some parallels between the civil rights movement and the feminist struggle are well worth considering. Griffith plays an abused housewife and overworked mother who kills her husband with rat poison shortly before the movie starts and flees to Hollywood to become an actress, while her nephew (Lucas Black) witnesses the murder of a young civil rights activist. This comedy-drama takes a while to arrive at what it has to say, but some of the performances kept me occupied in the meantime. With David Morse, Cathy Moriarty, Meat Loaf, Robert Wagner, Paul Mazursky, and a fancy turn toward the end by Rod Steiger. (JR) Read more

The Story Of Us

Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer try very hard and certainly give a lot to this brittle romantic comedy, directed by Rob Reiner, about a husband and wife who seem to hate each other after 15 years together. But the script by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson and Reiner’s direction of the secondary cast bristle with phoniness. There’s sitcom phoniness, the phoniness of imitating Woody Allen badly (cheap-shot therapist jokes based on attitudes rather than observations), and the phoniness of imitating Two for the Road even more ineptly (from the scattershot chronological structure to the obnoxious American tourists). Ultimately the lead performances lie buried in heaps of bad habits and strident conceits. If you disagree with me and like this, chances are you’ll find it cute. With Reiner, Tim Matheson, and Julie Hagerty, and cameos by Red Buttons and Jayne Meadows, among others. (JR) Read more

The Straight Story

A welcome change of pace (1999) from David Lynch, based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a midwestern septuagenarian who rode 240 miles on a lawn mower to visit his estranged brother after the latter suffered a stroke. The wonderful Richard Farnsworth plays the lead, and he was clearly born for the part; the script is by John Roach and Lynch’s editor and coproducer, Mary Sweeney. Lynch’s imaginative and heartfelt direction falters only when he tries for some of his relatively familiar weirdo effects. Otherwise this is a highly affecting and suggestive spiritual odyssey with plenty of all-American trimmings and reflections about old age. If some of the imagery suggests very-high-level calendar art, Lynch’s use of the ‘Scope frame is even more attractive than in Blue Velvet, and the film’s reflective rhythms are haunting. With Sissy Spacek. G, 111 min. (JR) Read more

Boys Don’t Cry

Kimberly Peirce’s first feature (1999, R, 118 min.), written with Andy Bienan, tells the disturbing story of Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank)raped and murdered in late 1993 for impersonating a manas harrowingly effective agitprop against sexual intolerance and hate crime. It’s a film with all the earmarks of earlier work by American independent producer Christine Vachon (Poison, Swoon, Safe, I Shot Andy Warhol, Go Fish). In some ways the story is about class as much as sexuality, and within this framework the actors do a fine jobespecially Chloe Sevigny as Teena’s girlfriend Lana. (JR) Read more

Food Alert

Last week I made a couple of passing references to the Chicago International Film Festival’s lack of clout in acquiring what many of my colleagues and I believe are the most important foreign movies to have appeared this year, including Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained, and Claire Denis’ Le beau travail. Of course some colleagues–in particular ones who favor strong, easy to follow story lines over form, style, even vision–don’t consider these pictures important, but my excitement about them is shared by many people in the mainstream: Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum singled out the Kiarostami and Denis movies as major Toronto events, in print and on Roger Ebert’s TV show; Rosetta won the top prize at Cannes; and the New Yorker devoted a small spread to the star-studded Time Regained three months back.

Rosetta and Le beau travail have acquired U.S. distributors. So far The Wind Will Carry Us and Time Regained haven’t–yet their producers are every bit as resistant to Chicago festival screenings as the distributor of Rosetta. Why? Because if a distributor or potential distributor is already worried about how many viewers a movie will attract, it won’t help to siphon off a few hundred of them at festival screenings. Read more

Random Hearts

Here’s a new form of meeting cute: police sergeant Harrison Ford winds up having a fling with Republican congresswoman Kristin Scott Thomas when their spouses, having a secret affair, perish in a plane crash. To add some irrelevant spice, the cop is going after a crooked colleague and the congresswoman is up for reelection (her campaign manager is director and coproducer Sydney Pollack). Billy Wilder, working with a somewhat similar plot over a quarter of a century ago in Avanti! (about the children rather than the spouses of a couple having a fling), made something sweet and romantic out of the conceit. Pollack–characteristically slick and impersonal as a director, though able as usual as an actor–makes the story a humorless, lugubrious, and interminable accompaniment to Dave Grusin’s insincere elevator music. Wilder enabled us to imagine the adulterous couple without ever showing them; Pollack can’t get us very interested in them even after strewing the screen with pointers. Darryl Ponicsan adapted Warren Adler’s novel, and Kurt Luedtke, credited with the screenplay, presumably adapted Ponicsan’s adaptation; with Charles S. Dutton, Bonnie Hunt, and acres of production values. (JR) Read more


The most disputed and reviled prizewinner at Cannes in 1999, this brave, ambitious, difficult, and highly memorable second feature by Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus) follows the police investigation of a rape-murder, sticking mainly to an oddball detective’s assistant who lives with his mother and who often hangs out with a female neighbor he silently loves and her loutish boyfriend. Dumont clearly views this sad sack as a Dostoyevskian hero, and though the stylization of the character is sometimes more than he can handle, I was held and often moved by the mulish persistence of the pacing, the precise and sensuous grasp of the locations, and the brute physiognomy of some of the characters (especially the love interest and the detective). Critics have called this dull and ugly, the hero laughably pathetic, and the plot and style ridiculousexactly my reaction to most Hollywood product. L’humanit Read more

Christ In Concrete

In some respects this is Edward Dmytryk’s best film, but sadly it’s also his least known. After he was blacklisted in Hollywood, and before he recanted and named names for the HUAC, Dmytryk went to England to direct this powerful 1949 story of an Italian bricklayer and his immigrant family struggling in New York during the Depression. Budgetary restrictions account for some awkwardness, yet this is a moving and durable work. Screenwriter Ben Barzman (another victim of the blacklist) adapted a novel by Pietro di Donato; coproducer Rod E. Geiger was the enterprising American who also brought Rossellini’s Open City to the U.S. With Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani (Orson Welles’s original choice for Desdemona in his Othello), Kathleen Ryan, and Charles Goldner. Also known as Give Us This Day and Salt to the Devil. (JR) Read more

Dill Scallion

For all its merits, This Is Spinal Tap has a lot to answer for: it spawned what could be the laziest of all current subgenres, the supposedly satiric pseudodocumentary (or, in the advertising lingo, the mockumentary). The title hero of this feeble entry is a school-bus driver (Billy Burke) who wins a free trip to Nashville at an Amarillo talent contest and becomes a country music star; when he accidentally injures his foot, his resulting shuffle becomes a national craze. Stand-up comic Jordan Brady wrote and directed; others in the cast include Kathy Griffin, Lauren Graham, David Koechner, and an embarrassed-looking Henry Winkler, who plays a brassy promoter and fiddles with his cigar at every opportunity. (JR) Read more

Thieves’ Highway

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Jules Dassin’s preblacklist Hollywood pictures and one of the best noirs ever made by anyone, this 1949 release is a terrific, fast-moving thriller about the corruption of the California fruit market business. Adapted by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, Track of the Cat) from his own novel, it has a pretty exciting cast as well: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese (in her American debut), Lee J. Cobb (in a role anticipating his part in On the Waterfront), Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, and Millard Mitchell. 94 min. (JR) Read more