A painfully unfunny period farce (1998) by writer-director-coproducer-costar Stanley Tucci (Big Night), though people who laugh at just about anything might be amused. In the 30s, two unemployed actors (Tucci and Oliver Platt) wind up on a luxury cruise, and the various complications call to mind Hope and Crosby fleeing from various Paramount back-lot villains. The secondary cast runs from Elizabeth Bracco, Steve Buscemi, and Alfred Molina to Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott, and Lili Taylornot to mention a cameo by Woody Allenand the ambience is intricately labored, stridently energetic, and about as familiar as yesterday’s toast. (JR)
A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries
This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In “Billy,” the first of the film’s three sections, an expatriate novelist in Paris (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Barbara Hershey) adopt a six-year-old French boy who’s initially resented by the couple’s natural daughter. “Francis,” set a few years later, recounts the daughter’s friendship with an eccentric American schoolmate (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and Jane Birkin has a field day as his doting single mother. Yet these last two characters, as well as the family’s maid (Dominique Blanc) and her boyfriend (Isaac de Bankole), disappear in “Daddy,” which follows the family’s return to the States once the siblings are teenagers and the father’s health is deteriorating. The three parts add up to a rather lumpy narrative, and the characters are perceived through a kind of affectionate recollection that tends to idealize them, but they’re so beautifully realized that they linger like cherished friends. This is Ivory’s best film since Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, beautifully acted and inflected, with many first-rate French actors (including Macha Meril, Nathalie Richard, and Virginie Ledoyen) in smaller roles. Esquire, Evanston.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.
John Waters’s laid-back comedy and ultimate anti-New York statement (1998) concerns a young sandwich maker (Edward Furlong) whose amateurish photos of his working-class life in Baltimore are discovered by the New York art world (mainly through a dealer played with wonderful understatement by Lili Taylor). Waters builds to a didactic message that he underlines with Disney-esque dream dust (in various colors), as if to protect his sincerity with the disclaimer of self-mockery. Always a better writer than director, Waters makes me laugh even when he’s dawdling, and though this is no Hairspray there’s a lot of good-natured funny stuff here about the hero’s sugar-addicted kid sister, his fag-hag older sister (Martha Plimpton), the girlfriend who runs a laundromat (Christina Ricci), and other local eccentrics. It’s a low-key effort compared to a hyperraunch festival like There’s Something About Mary, but that movie could never have existed without Waters’s shining example. (JR)
An intriguing tale of moral regeneration from Shohei Imamura (Eijanaika, The Ballad of Narayama, The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology), adapted from Akira Yoshimura’s novel Sparkles in the Darkness. A white-collar worker spends eight years in prison after brutally murdering his wife and her lover; released to the supervision of a Buddhist priest in a small coastal town, he becomes a barber and relates almost exclusively to a pet eel he adopted while incarcerated. After saving the life of a suicidal woman who resembles his late wife, the barber makes her his assistant, yet the growing bond between them is complicated by her crazed mother and her ex-lover. The film brims over with various eccentrics (the barber’s ufologist neighbor and a former prison mate who harasses the hero and delivers drunken tirades), and Imamura views them all with mixed amusement and curiosity; he also does striking things with dream sequences and visual and aural flashbacks. At Cannes this shared the 1997 Palme d’Or with Taste of Cherry, and though I don’t consider it on the same level, it’s absorbing throughout and a good deal more accessible. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 18 through 24. –Jonathan Rosenbaum