John Frankenheimer does an excellent job of directing an extremely dubious thriller script by Ehren Kruger, about an ex-con (Ben Affleck) forced by a group of gun smugglers (including Gary Sinise and Clarence Williams III) into helping in the heist of a roadside casino on Christmas Eve. What’s dubious about this is the contribution of the usual studio thinking: the plot has more twists than a rattlesnake, at least three twists too many if one is supposed to accept any of the characters as human. (As two who couldn’t possibly be, Charlize Theron and James Frain prove as malleable as they come.) I had a pretty good time with this until the end, when I felt so soiled by the filmmakers’ cynicism and the characters’ gratuitous viciousness that I wanted to take a bath. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: January 2000
From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 2000). — J.R.
Jane Campion still has a remarkable eye for framing and imagining, but on the sad evidence of this scrambled free-for-all (1999), written with her sister Anna Campion, she’s taken leave of about half her senses. The setup is promising: a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) becomes smitten with an Indian guru, and her bourgeois family, after luring her back home with a lie that her father is dying, hires an American specialist (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her in the outback. Naturally the two of them get involved, and naturally this becomes a monumental battle of wills and sexes. As in Campion’s The Piano there’s a lot of wildness qualifying as a kind of politically correct porn, decked out on this occasion with dazzling visual effects that begin with the title written in smoke. But all sorts of questions go unanswered, and there’s little of the density found in Campion’s early work; this is mainly smoke, not fire. R, 114 min. (JR)
It takes spectacularly bad judgment to make Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, and Sharon Stone all look clunky and adrift. (Catherine Keener, a relative newcomer, emerges relatively unscathed, but then again she’s given much less to do.) Such misjudgment is usually the work of a committee, and even though this film was allegedly directed by one individual (Matthew Warchus), adapting with David Nicholls the work of another individual (a Sam Shepard play about a horse-racing scam), I can’t tell how much Warchus and/or Shepard can be blamed for the terminally awkward flashbacks, the unconvincing characters, the heavy-handed dramaturgy, and the overall dullness of what’s on-screen. Insofar as they’re allowed to be members of the committee, I assume they’re at least partially to blame, but it’s the whole contemporary system of picture making that probably has to be faulted for such an extravagant waste of resources. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 2000). — J.R.
Even when his work is at its most contrived, which it certainly is here, writer-director Ron Shelton is the best purveyor of jock humor around. He extracts it endlessly from this comedy about two boxers (Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas), best friends but romantic rivals , who are driving to Las Vegas with their mutual girl (Lolita Davidovich) to fight each other before the Mike Tyson main event. Instead of providing closure the movie just evaporates, but Shelton’s wit and sass keep it flowing, after a fashion. Plot is nothing and character is everything in this sort of setup, and speaking as someone who would rather watch paint spill than blood, I was glued to my seat during the protracted, fairly gruesome climactic slugfest. With Lucy Liu, Robert Wagner, Tom Sizemore, Richard Masur, and lots of pointless cameos of stars glimpsed in ringside seats. (JR)
In my January 7 piece on the ten best movies of 1999, I incorrectly implied that Divorce Iranian Style first played locally at the Film Center. In fact it surfaced originally at the 1998 Chicago International Film Festival, where, festival programmer Jim Healy informs me, it tied for best documentary. Apologies to the festival for the error. Since it also had an extended run at the Film Center in early 1999, it still qualifies for my list.
Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
Luis Galvao Teles’s film about five middle-aged Lisbon friends is Portuguese-made with French dialogue, making it in theory the worst kind of Europudding. But in practice it’s a stirring vehicle for five talented actressesCarmen Maura, Miou-Miou, Paris opera star Guesch Patti, Marisa Berenson, and Marthe Keller. For my taste, this is juicier and more enjoyable as a movie about aging than All About My Mother, and the social milieu it encompasses is considerably wider: Maura plays a TV news journalist, Miou-Miou a literature professor, Patti an actress and singer, Keller a caterer, and Berenson the owner of a chic beauty salon where the others hang out. Collectively they conjure up a substantial worldand incidentally act up a storm. (JR)… Read more »
Shortly after two boys from Tibet arrive in India to be trained as monks, one of them develops a passion for soccer. He contrives to get the monastery to chip in so that a satellite dish and TV can be rented and everyone can watch the World Cup final. For better and for worse, everything else in this comedy from Bhutan plays out in the homey details. This is the first feature of Khyentse Norbu, a lama who was recognized at age seven as the reincarnation of a 19th-century Buddhist saint. (Perhaps he helped inspire Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, a film on which he apprenticed.) Norbu tries too hard to please and charm, but his film at least carries the advantages of unactorly faces and a premise based on actual events that dramatizes the issue of religious vocation in a secular world. Norbu cites Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Satyajit Ray as his masters, but the only discernible traces of these influences are the bratty mugging of the younger kid (Ozu) and some of Ray’s uses of musical interludes. (JR)… Read more »
Half a dozen young French-Canadian filmmakersManon Briand, Andre Turpin, Marie-Julie Dallaire, Denis Villeneuve, Jennifer Alleyn, and Arto Paragamianpool their resources to produce a lively comic-sketch film in black and white (1996), imaginative and satirical and sexy; part of its charm is that you can’t always tell where one sketch ends and the next begins. A collective spirit and coordinated efforts make this breezy tour of youth culture in Quebec City homogeneous at the same time that each episode has its own distinctive flavor. The two segments I recall most fondly are a nightmarish interview with a filmmaker on a high-tech TV show (Villeneuve’s segment) and a very funny chance encounter between two ex-lovers in a hotel (Turpin’s segment), but just about everything here recalls the footloose, playful spirit of the French New Wavenot when its directors were trying to make hefty statements, but when they were just having fun. (JR)… Read more »
Younger fans of The Blair Witch Project may not realize that this kind of pseudodocumentary, usually minus the horror elements, was a staple of independent filmmaking during the 60s; Jim McBride’s first feature (David Holzman’s Diary), Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, and Peter Watkins’s early films (including The War Game and Privilege) all dealt potently with this form. This evocative 1969 feature by Milton Moses Ginsberg, a relatively late example, is particularly good at giving the impression that he’s using random footage, and it sometimes suggests Andy Warhol (the strobe cutting and unbridled behavior) and Michael Snow (a consistent camera angle). The entire movie is set in the living room of the Manhattan apartment of a onetime psychiatrist (Rip Torn), most of it shot with an allegedly hidden camera across from a sofa and mirror. The hero is idly filming his sexual encountersmany of them abortive, though in keeping with the period’s sexual politics, the women generally strip right away and he never gets further than his underpants. The scenes range from flirtations and kinky come-ons to orgies to marital squabbles. Torn, Sally Kirkland, and Viveca Lindfors are all terrific, and the music is by Jefferson Airplane. (JR)… Read more »
Craig Ross, Jr. wrote, directed, and produced this 1997 mystery. The film’s 16-millimeter black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and its actors are mainly good, but the Eric Dickey story that Ross bases it on is pretty familiar stuff, a torrid tale of adulterous passion straight out of the postnoir Body Heat bin, and it never gets beyond artificiality. This is technically quite impressive for a feature that cost under $10,000, but I wish it gave me more to sink my teeth into. With James Black, Angelle Brooks, and Jennifer Lee. (JR)… Read more »
Widely regarded as the first major film by Glauber Rocha, one of the key figures of the cinema nuovo, this exciting 1964 Brazilian feature draws on myth and folklore in exploring the sertao in 1940. Strongly recommended. (JR)… Read more »
The first feature of writer-director Richard Murphy is laborious whimsy about a neurotic and insecure Hollywood superstar (coproducer Cheryl Pollak) who walks off the set of a movie in progress, rents a suburban house incognito, and tries to learn a more modest trade from three men she encounters by chance (a swimming pool cleaner, a door-to-door salesman, and a delivery boy), bringing a little light to their lives in the process. At times the strained writing smacks of theater-of-the-absurd acting exercises, and the editing is both fancy and fussy, but I enjoyed Ron Perlman’s laid-back salesman. With Stephen Gregory, Dan O’Donohue, Holland Taylor, and Udo Kier. (JR)… Read more »
An intriguing and often funny, if at times confusing, 1996 feature from Cameroon by the talented Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Mozart Quartier). Originally intended as the African entry in the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema documentaries, which recount the histories of various national cinemas, it took on too many other agendas to fulfill that assignment. It’s partly a comedy about the taste of action-movie fans in a small town in southern Africa, partly a meditation on the difficulties of making films in Africa. (JR)… Read more »
Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature (his first was Hate) was easily the most despised film in competition at Cannes, although there were relatively few walkouts. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games though much more lowbrow, this 1997 French thriller exploits affectless violence to the utmost while attacking the exploitation of affectless violence, as a 25-year-old punk (Kassovitz) is trained in fatherly fashion by a seasoned hit man (Michel Serrault). But it lacks the icy distance of Haneke’s film, and its flagrant borrowings from Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and Natural Born Killers also testify to the puritanical hypocrisy of those sources. Scorsese and Stone can get away with this sort of doublethink better than Kassovitz, however, because they put more emphasis on entertaining the audience than on preaching; Kassovitz, through sheer confused sincerity, too clearly exposes the muddled hypocrisy of his undertaking. Still, Assassin(s) has a certain dramatic voltage and communicates an underlying despair. And even when Kassovitz alternates between crass product placement and attacks on TV commercials, he’s merely giving the mainstream press what it usually asks for from movies. Maybe part of the rage this film provoked at Cannes had to do with the near-accuracy of its calculations. (JR)… Read more »
Organized by filmmakers Paula Froehle and Carolyn Faber and musician Ken Vandermark, this program combines silent shorts by Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith with improvised music, presented not as accompaniment but as a concurrent event. The Keaton films are all superbOne Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), and Cops (1922), about 20 minutes each. I’ve seen only the first of the Griffiths, which are each about 15 minutesA Corner in Wheat (1909)and that’s quite remarkable as well. The other two are The Unchanging Sea (1910) and The Female of the Species (1912). The tentative musical lineup includes Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (reeds), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Michael Zerang (drums), and Jeb Bishop (trombone). (JR)… Read more »