1998 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

 These articles appeared in the Near North News, Chicago and are copyright, Bob Blackwood.

Hyperlink index:

Love that Shakespeare

Wag the Dog, Or Bite It

The Apostle and Blues Brothers 2000: A Holiness Explosion

Two Films Noir: One Up, One Down

Summer Cinema Picks and Pans

Lost in Space, Last in Line

Much Ado About Nothing This Summer

Elizabeth: A Mixed Bag

Fantasy and the Millenium

Boorman's The General

Link back to film year index page

Love that Shakespeare

by Bob Blackwood
John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love" is funny, sexy and authentic.  It is funny to see an Elizabethan actor and playwright (Joseph Fiennes--yes, the brother of Ralph--as Will Shakespeare) trying to woo a highborn maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow).  The scenes of their "forbidden love," as an actor she is dressed as a man often too, are quite hot.  And thanks to the script of Marc Norman and especially Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" and "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet"), it was authentic in speech and in situation.

No, unlike Judi Dench's perfectly realized Queen Elizabeth, no one was thinking of throwing his cloak down to provide a dry walkway for an impoverished playwright trying to write "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."  Shakespeare was scrambling for a living, just like any New York writer-director in the alternate film world today.

The sets and costumes are both gorgeous and functional.  The script is filled with jokes for those who are familiar with Shakespeare's works and with a lively plot filled with romance and excitement for all.

It is truly a film for the whole family unless the Elizabethan dialog throws you.  And if it does, you are probably not reading this review in Chicago's Near North News.

Madden, whose previous films have included "Mrs. Brown" (1997) with Judi Dench (who has a lock on assertive British female monarch roles) as Queen Victoria, is in the running for the Oscars with this entertaining film.  True, he does use Elizabeth as the "deus ex machina" to solve a plot problem.  But, unlike my more theoretical critical brethren, I can accept it on the grounds that this is a comedy and the solution gets a laugh.  That's what impoverished playwrights do to become affluent playwrights.

Robert Rodriguez's "The Faculty" reveals how the teachers at a mid-American high school can really be alien invaders who are out to destroy the stereotypes of high school films--the jocks, the nerds, the outsiders, etc.  There was nothing there that I have not seen done better in other films--"The Body Snatchers," "The Puppet Masters," "Scream," even the fabled "Henry Aldrich Gets a Hickey."

I really think that there is a good film to be made about alien teachers--people who read novels, magazines and newspapers--who are trying to communicate with average U.S. students--people who don't read anything except traffic signs and channel selectors.  I see it as a musical comedy with the teachers doing operatic arias and the students doing all the dance numbers on top of the cafeteria tables.

Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" (La Vita e Bella) is really two films.  It opens as a romantic comedy, reminiscent in situation to those early Fellini films--"Variety Lights" (1950), "The White Sheik" (1951)--with wandering poor folks trying to find someone to love them.  Benigni is an accomplished comic.  You may have seen him in Blake Edwards' "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993) or in Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth" (1991).

In the second part of the film, the Benigni character is in a Nazi death camp trying to create a fictional gameworld to explain the horrors than enfold for the benefit of his approximately 7-year-old son.  I know I was supposed to see this half of the film as a triumph of the human spirit and imagination over the Nazis' banality of evil.

Unfortunately, I did not buy a minute of it.  The death camp background was there.  The father's lies to the son were not at all convincing for any bright boy, which the child was.  Maybe it is my problem.

But this film is not Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" (1953) filled with a crew of bored U.S. soldiers who rarely were facing death in their camp, nor is it Philippe De Broca's "King of Hearts" (1966) in which the inmates of an insane asylum have taken over a small town in the midst of a World War I battle.  "Life Is Beautiful" is something less, and they are something more.

Wag the Dog, Or Bite It

by Bob Blackwood

Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" is a good concept for a film, but the execution is lame.  The comedy is forced from the start.

To cover up sexual misconduct, an American President hires a spin doctor (Robert DeNiro) to cook up a phoney war for 11 days.  The spin doctor seeks the help of a bigtime Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) and uses a presidential staffer (Anne Heche) to help him.  Woody Harrelson appears as a lunatic chosen to be the military hero of the supposed war with Albania.

It should be funny, but it just does not generate many laughs.  Hoffman does his best with the material (Larry Beinhart's novel "American Hero") as worked over by Hillary Henkin and David Mamet.  I was hoping for better dialog with Mamet along, but, when you have three writers, you get what you get.

If the writers were trying for Juvenalian satire's bite, they would have been better off doing a docudrama of George Bush's Operation Just Cause, or, Why We Have to Get the Guy Now that We Were Paying Off Yesterday.

I am sure Hoffman caused some winces in the executive suites of Hollywood as he mixed fact with fiction, earnestness with deviousness.   After the opening, DeNiro seemed to be counter-punching with Hoffman.  I have the feeling that if Levinson had asked for more from DeNiro, the film might have picked up the pace and generated some laughs.  But it would have necessitated another re-write.

Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" is a funny film which borrows a lot of its structure from Fellini's "8 1/2."  If you are going to mix reality with a creative artist's imagination, what better film to borrow from?

Allen's Harry Block is a New York novelist facing writer's block.  Periodically, throughout the film, people from his life and, later on, characters from his novels appear to tell him off as a perennial adolescent, sexual adventurer and, basically, a no good bum.  But you keep laughing.

Yes, there was a feeling of characters walking off a movie screen, sitting next to you in the audience and talking to you directly a la Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985).

At the end of the film, all the "real life" characters and all of the "fictional" characters from Block's novels appear to applaud Block in a dream sequence.  Fellini did it better by having them dance in a ring at the end of "8 1/2."

Fellini, who started out as a cartoonist, always has a keen visual sense.  Allen, who started out as a script writer and comic, often seems limited to dialog alone to make his points these days.  And, the distracting jump cuts were a visual metaphor for the author's confused state of mind, but they were still distracting.

Some of Allen's earlier films, like "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" (1972) and "Sleeper" (1973), were visually quite entertaining.  "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993), on the other hand, looked like it had been shot by a nearsighted film school freshman.

Yes, Allen is one of the true auteurs in American film.  Yes, he should keep his independence.  No, he should not compromise with the the studio system to get more production money.  And, no, I could care less about his private life.

But, Woody, go for some memorable visual concepts.


The Apostle and Blues Brothers 2000: A Holiness Explosion

by Bob Blackwood

Between Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" and John Landis' "Blues Brothers 2000," there is a wealth of good music to be heard and something to see too.

"The Apostle" tells the story of a most intemperate preacher, a believer, a man searching for community and a builder of a number of communities, but a man with problems.  When my fiancee walked away from this film, she said, "There is something in that film to offend everyone."

I agree, but I often wonder about the men who built the early Christian church.  I suspect men like St. Paul were not the easiest men in the congregation to get along with.  Men with a mission are often abrasive, but they do get the job done.

Robert Duvall's preacher, Sonny Dewey, AKA The Apostle E.F., has carried out his mission not only to his congregation but throughout the state of Texas.  But Sonny was never able to cross over that bridge to his wife and children as he should have.  He founds a new holiness temple and finds salvation for himself in Louisiana.

In an interview, Duvall told of interviewing Pentecostal ministers, of learning of their real problems.  The film succeeds because you believe in every character he builds.  You see his wife, a wonderful Farrah Fawcett getting back to her Texas roots, fearing physical contact with him when he is angry.

You believe Sonny is sincerely religious; he is no hypocrite.  And you also believe that he is really out of control in his personal life.  Those of you who cannot accept this contradiction must be without sin yourself.

Just keep in mind the attitude of the congregations of some of our television evangelists.  The preachers' private lives always give the folks something to talk about after the service.  In fact, perhaps our President shares in some of this white Southern soul.

On the soundtrack album (with other music), Lyle Lovett's "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" is moving.  Lari White's "There Is Power in the Blood" is rocking.  And Johnny Cash never sounded better than in his version of "In the Garden."  Now there's a man whose life story could almost match Sonny's.

In 1980, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd made John Landis' "Blues Brothers" come alive.  In 1998, Aykroyd and Landis put the script together to make "Blues Brothers 2000" a powerful film.  Landis and Aykroyd went for a fantasy trip with John Goodman (body), Joe Morton (soul) and J. Evan Bonifant (spirit) replacing Belushi.
It works.
The music cooks--blues most of all, rhythm and blues, soul, ballads, rock.  The film includes almost everyone from the original film (yes, Aretha Franklin and James Brown strut their stuff again) and concludes with the greatest bluesfest in history--B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Lou Rawls, Koko Taylor, Stevie Winwood, and many more.

The film itself is a fantasy about musicians on the road.  If you have known musicians on the road, and I have, you know that many of them are in a fantasy anyway.  Now, I understand how a lot of whitebread film critics have to jump on Landis.  I can only say, if you left the popcorn alone and had a little Jack Daniels instead, you might have appreciated the film for the fine musical that it is.  Giving a great musical a bad review for its script is as logical as panning Verdi's "Aida" for its libretto.

On the soundtrack album, Paul Butterfield's Blues Band "Born in Chicago" sets the tone for one side of "Blues Brothers 2000."  "John the Revelator" with Taj Mahal, Sam Moore, The Faith Chorale and others touches the spirit.   And "How Blue Can You Get" by the bluesfest supergroup is memorable.

Two Films Noir: One Up, One Down

by Bob Blackwood

"Film noir" is a term coined by French film critics in the post-WWII years to exemplify certain American films, usually set in a corrupt city, which often had dark frames or were set in the evening, hence the "noir" (black)--e.g. Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" (1946).  Bogart, the private eye with a cigarette, was the star in many of these films, and there was usually a femme fatale.

But there were other creations that fit into film noir.  Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944) had Fred MacMurray totally vamped by Barbara Stanwyck.  There were no gangsters here, just human greed and murder. In Tay Garnett's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946), another two lovers, John Garfield and Lana Turner, condemned a husband to death.

Film noir has grown since the Forties.  It used to be simply a style, a visually shadowy black and white depiction of people engaged in double-crossing each other in every sort of endeavor.  Now, it has become at least a subgenre and in Technicolor, too.  Currently, Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" is billed as a "noir thriller" and is up for a bag of Oscars.

In the old days, the film noir detective hero had a private code, a la Sam Spade.  He might bend the law a bit.  He might get rough with a bad guy.  He might pick up a dollar where he could.  But he would never commit a violent crime unless it was to even up the score for a partner--shades of Owen Wister's "The Virginian."

As the femme fatales grew more tempting and as even private detectives became too close to law and order for the writers, some film noir male central characters dropped their codes--a la Fred MacMurray.  Maybe the most complex characters--e.g. Harrison Ford's Deckard in "Blade Runner"--still had them, but others did not.

In Volker Schlondorff's "Palmetto," Woody Harrelson is a film noir hero without a chance in Florida.  More than a taste of Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" (1981) is in the atmosphere.  A former ex-con and former newspaper reporter, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, Harrelson's character is out to make a quick buck.  Elisabeth Shue makes a sizzling femme fatale.  The problem is, not only does Woody's character not have a code, he does not have any street smarts either.  He is a sap.

So you sit there for about two hours watching this sap blunder from one mess into another, and you just don't care.  The pacing is slow.  The dialog is not memorable.  Couldn't anyone have done something else with this good cast?

In "Twilight," Robert Benton took a great cast--Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman--and made a good film noir.  Paul Newman is a perfectly believable aging private eye among the beautiful people of Hollywood, usually doing the right thing and usually getting hurt.  Susan Sarandon does the femme fatale well.  Gene Hackman as the dying power broker, stuck in the middle of a complex plot, is flawless.

Unlike almost all film noir, this film has a lot of humorous takes.  Part of it may be the many aptitudes of the players; part of it is the script.  Recall that Benton also wrote and directed "The Late Show" (1977), another complex and humorous detective film with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.  Certainly both James Garner and Stockard Channing have a bit of tongue-in-cheek.  I wish the pace were a bit faster, but, after "Palmetto," "Twilight" seemed to move like the Kentucky Derby.


                              Much Ado About Nothing This Summer