Who needs another killer couple fleeing cross-country with cops in hot pursuit? Yet thanks to this 1998 Australian thriller’s aggressive and unnerving formal approach–jump cuts that hurtle us through the story like a needle skipping across a record and an inventive camera style that defamiliarizes characters as well as settings–the characters’ paranoia is translated into the slithery uncertainty of our own perceptions: this is the most interesting reworking of noir materials I’ve seen since After Dark, My Sweet and The Underneath. The creepy alienation of the lead couple (Frances O’Connor and Matt Day) from their victims and the world in general is eventually replicated in their own relationship, and variations on the same kind of mistrust crop up between the cops pursuing them and in just about every other cockeyed existential encounter in the film. Apart from some juicy character acting and striking uses of landscape, what makes this genre exercise by veteran director Bill Bennett special is the metaphysical climate produced by the style, transforming suspense into genuine dread. The outback is an eyeful too. 95 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St., Thursday, November 30, 7:00, 773-702-8575.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
Personally, I’d call the translated title Venus Beauty Salon, because it’s about the women who work at a somewhat tacky Parisian beauty parlora place where something sounding like a harp glissando is heard every time the front door opens. Written and directed by Tonie Marshalla former actress who’s the daughter of French star Micheline Presle and American actor-director William Marshallit won Cesars (the French Oscars) last year for best picture, director, screenplay, and young actress. Though I wouldn’t call it sensational enough to warrant such a sweep, it’s a pretty good chronicle of a certain phase of French working-class life, evocative at times of Claude Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes and very much enhanced by such wonderful actors as Nathalie Baye and Bulle Ogier. The others, including Samuel Le Bihan, Jacques Bonnaffe, Mathilde Seigner (sister of Emmanuelle), and Audrey Tautou, aren’t bad either. 105 min. (JR) Read more
Are two Arnold Schwarzeneggers better than one? I started out thinking yes but eventually changed my mind, as the law of diminishing returns kicked in. One Arnold takes over the wife, daughter, house, and life of the other in this fitfully enjoyable but overextended SF thriller about cloning, directed by Roger Spottiswoode from a script by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley. When the dictates of routine action take over, some of the satirical possibilities of the theme that were initially tapped are forgotten. Insofar as this is distinguishable from others of its ilk, it’s a far cry from Total Recall, but vastly superior to End of Days; insofar as it isn’t, it’s a clone itself. With Tony Goldwyn, Michael Rapaport, Michael Rooker, Sarah Wynter, Wendy Crewson, and Robert Duvall. 124 min. (JR) Read more
This feature-length documentary (1995, 89 min.) by Swiss filmmaker Daniel Schmid pays tribute to Kabuki performer and female impersonator Tamasaburo Bando, including a great deal of performance footage. It bears the visible influence of Roland Barthes’ wonderful and utopian short book about Japan, The Empire of Signs, and benefits greatly from this happy input. Like Tosca’s Kiss, this film suggests that the documentary may actually be the most suitable form for Schmid. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, November 16, 6:00, 312-443-3737.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
Nine friends from high school now in their 30s converge at a house on the lake for a weekend reunion, in a watchable but not very memorable comedy-drama written and produced by Jerome Courshon and directed by Paul Leaf. The professions range from model (Andrea Leithe) to postal worker (Phil Palisoul) to TV anchor (Mark Porro) to stockbroker (Greg Wrangler) to secretary (Maria McCann), and the routine construction gives us something close to one revelation per character. The cast of semiunknowns is game and likable, but a week or so after previewing this I could barely remember it. 97 min. (JR) Read more
Contemporary taste seems to favor either superexpensive SF movies made today or supercheap camp items from the heyday of Hollywood. I don’t know the actual budget of this adventure yarn, about the first manned expedition to Mars, but it feels like a middle-range effort whose heart is with the bargain-basement offerings of yesteryear. The dialogue’s worthy of Destination Moon half a century ago, and though there isn’t a member of the spaceship’s kitchen staff named Cookie, Val Kilmer plays a space janitor, which is almost as good. The story here has the expedition’s commander, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, orbiting Mars while crew members who’ve crash-landed on the planet discover it isn’t uninhabited. Most of the enigmas in the plot are never adequately explained, but a couple of shots on the planet’s surface have some of the distilled poetry of Edgar Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X. Despite a multifaceted obeisance toward 2001 that extends even to calling the commander Bowman, the film’s aspirations toward low-tech triumph are the main source of its charm. I confess that before I picked up on this I fidgeted a lot. Antony Hoffman directed from a screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin; with Tom Sizemore and Terence Stamp. Read more
Despite the awkward title, I can fully understand Fine Line Features’ decision to rename this touching and erotic but not too explicit French movie, originally called Une liaison pornographique, because it really is a love story in spite of everything. There are interesting ground rules both to the film’s central relationship and to the story that describes it. A nameless couple (Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez) meet through the classifieds to explore a particular sexual fantasy that is never revealed to us; each week they have sex in a hotel but reveal nothing about their lives or identities to each other or to us. (The characters narrate the story by speaking separately to the same offscreen male interviewer.) Eventually they start to fall in love. Ironically, the only scene in the film featuring sex between them–it’s the one time they have traditional intercourse–is included because it charts the onset of their love. Director Frederic Fonteyne copes pretty well with the built-in restrictions of Philippe Blasband’s script, but this movie really belongs to Baye (best known for her work with Truffaut and Godard) and Lopez (best known for his work with Manuel Poirier), both so skillful that they almost make you forget that what you’re watching is close to a stunt–one oddly evocative of Graham Greene in its doomed romanticism but at times also minimalist to a fault. Read more
A quiet psychological thriller in the Val Lewton mode, about a young woman (Rosemary LePlanche) who may be murdering people and animals in her sleep. Frank Wysbar, a German filmmaker who emigrated to Hollywood in the 1940s, directed this low-budget 1946 horror picture for the PRC studio; the most notable thing about it is the performers’ low-key avoidance of cliches. 66 min. (JR) Read more
When it comes to TV commercials, I’m not sure what best means: so good that you forget the product, or so good that you remember? Whatever the distributors had in mind, they’ve announced that this will be the last of their annual compilations, and presumably it’s the best of the best because it includes stuff from the 70s and 80sover a hundred commercials from 19 countries. (JR) Read more
A disappointing follow-up to Little Odessa, James Gray’s second feature is one more sluggish, artfully framed thriller with Rembrandt lighting set in a New York borougha kind of picture that’s awfully hard to do in a fresh manner. The closest Gray comes is in coaxing strong performances out of his older actors (James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway in a smaller part), much as he did with Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell in his previous film. He’s less lucky with his three leads (Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Joaquin Phoenix), who can’t manage to conjure up much sustained interest as characters or even as presences; there’s something about the lugubrious art-movie ambience that swamps them. 108 min. (JR) Read more