I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese director Chen Kaige’s work, but this opium dream about incestuous longings is clearly his best piece of direction, stylistically voluptuous and pictorial in the best sense. Shot by the remarkable Christopher Doyle, perhaps the most talented cinematographer working in Asia, and starring Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, it’s full of ravishing poetry, even though it isn’t very involving on a narrative level. Since its Cannes premiere it’s been cut by ten minutes or so and decked out with titles intended mainly to clarify the story line and distinguish characters (the usual aim of Miramax’s compulsive meddling), but this has done damage to the film’s hypnotic and hallucinatory rhythms, especially in the early sections. Once one gets past this choppiness, Chen’s use of offscreen sounds as emotional and atmospheric punctuation and his exquisite uses of color, lighting, framing, and camera movement conspire to make this a beautifully overripe example of Baudelairean cinema. Shu Kei wrote the elliptical script, based on a story by the director and Wang Anyi, set in and around Shanghai from 1911 to sometime in the 1920s. Water Tower. (JR)
On the strength of this film and Ruby in Paradise, Florida independent Victor Nu
A Critic’s Choice for the Chicago Reader (June 6, 1997). — J.R.
In an era when the only fantasies grown-up critics are supposed to validate are preschool ones, here’s a charming and decidedly offbeat adult fantasy-comedy (1995) from the stylish English director Clare Peploe (High Season). In the early 50s, around the time of Nixon’s Checkers speech, a magician’s apprentice (Bridget Fonda) who’s engaged to a corrupt and wealthy politician (D.W. Moffett) runs off to Mexico in search of a sorceress after witnessing an apparent murder. Eventually she links up with a couple of guys (Russell Crowe and Jim Broadbent) who have separate reasons for being interested in her magic. Adapted by William Brookfield, former film critic Robert Mundy, and Peploe from James Hadley Chase’s novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, this visual treat recalls the whimsical postwar fantasies of Lewis Padgett (the pen name of writing team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore). The period flavor is witty and concise, the magic — which ultimately includes a talking dog and a man turning into a sausage — fetching and full of twists. (Fine Arts) — Jonathan Rosenbaum
Try to imagine a Russ Meyer porn movie about LA teenagers crossed with an early scatological John Waters opus and punctuated with outtakes from Natural Born Killers; you’ll have a rough idea what Gregg Araki is up to in this hyper, scattershot movie, whose own publicity compares it to a Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid. Even if the compulsively kaleidoscopic visual style (ten times too many close-ups for my taste) and scuzzy dialogue are such that only one moment out of seven makes much of an impression, there’s still plenty to be amused or nauseated by: phrases like Whatev (a reductio ad absurdum of west-coast verbal sloth), Dogs eating people is cool, and You smell like a wet dog; a face getting beaten to a pulp by an unopened can of tomato soup (making one wonder if Campbell’s paid for the product placement); blood-spattered walls color coordinated with a tacky floral bedspread; flashes of kinky straight sex and tender homoeroticism; periodic appearances by the Creature From the Black Lagoon; and so onadding up to loads of flash and minimal substance. The cast includes James Duval, Rachel True, Christina Applegate, Debi Mazar, and Chiara Mastroianni, and there are loads of guest appearances. (JR)