Like many children’s movies these days, this 1999 animated feature by writer-director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) is an E.T. spin-off, but it’s a very likable and imaginative one. Set in a small town in Maine in 1957, it features a nine-year-old hero and his friend, a 50-foot extraterrestrial robot with a big appetite for metal and a peaceful, playful nature that turns threatening only when the paranoia of grown-ups activates its destructive possibilities. Adapted by Tim McCanlies from the book The Iron Man by British poet Ted Hughes, this is enjoyable in part because of its flavorsome period ambience and its lively and satiric charactersespecially a beatnik sculptor and a government agent voiced respectively by Harry Connick Jr. and Christopher McDonaldthough its graphic and dramatic virtues are nothing to sneeze at either. Some of the other voices are furnished by Jennifer Aniston, Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, and M. Emmet Walsh. PG, 86 min. (JR)
The impressive directorial debut of actress Joan Chen, who’s appeared in everything from Twin Peaks to The Last Emperor to Heaven and Earth. Adapted from the novella Tian Yu by Yan Geling, who collaborated with Chen on the screenplay, and filmed in Tibet, this feature has enraged mainland Chinese government officialsnot only because it was shot without an official permit but apparently also because its tragic plot gives such a dark portrait of the effects of the Cultural Revolution. The young title heroine, who like many others in her generation travels from a city to a remote part of China, winds up working with a horse trainer in Tibet, a solitary and stoic figure whose quiet love for her is the main focus of the story. Desperate after a spell to return to her native Chengdu, Xiu Xiu winds up sleeping with a series of men who she believes have influence on such state decisions. Exquisitely acted, and shot by Zhang Yimou cinematographer Lu Yuean impressive director in his own rightwith a sharp feeling for landscape, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking. (JR)
Two teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) touring the White House in the mid-70s stumble upon some secrets of Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) without realizing what they are, and when things snowball wind up as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant. This is silly and shameless stuff that made me laugh quite a lot, in part because it provides the perfect antidote to the neo-Stalinist pomposity of Oliver Stone’s Nixon and glib self-importance of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Andrew Fleming (Threesome, The Craft) , who directed from a script he wrote with Sheryl Longin, lacks the polish and pizzazz of Stone and Pakula, but arguably his notions about American politics are healthier and more earthbound than theirs; in his book, Nixon and Kissinger and Woodward and Bernstein are all deserving of ridicule. In some ways this is like Forrest Gump without the neocon trimmings, which for me makes it bracing and energizing, though younger viewers may not catch all the historical references. With Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Saul Rubinek as Kissinger, and Teri Garr. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 2999). — J.R.
It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist. Recurring aerial shots of unidentified cities and a good many dimly lit interiors alternate with grainy video-surveillance images to create the visual equivalent of a multinational labyrinth in which you might easily lose yourself. Ferrara’s previous feature, The Blackout – also unseen in the U.S., and brutally yanked from the Film Center’s Ferrara retrospective by a new distributor that still has no release plans for it — is an equally beautiful film object in some ways, though I found its story rather banal; New Rose Hotel doesn’t have enough of a story to share that problem. Coproduced by Walken and Dafoe, it’s too far off the beaten path to please most audiences, but I find its decadent erotic poetry irresistible. Apparently this is the U.S. premiere. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 23, 6:00 and 8:00, 312-443-3737.
A remake of the 1968 heist movie that starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, with Dunaway returning as the hero’s psychiatrist. This time Pierce Brosnan plays the gentleman thief, and he’s pursued by Rene Russowho depicts an insurance detective and all-around superwoman with so much sexy panache that she’s the main reason for seeing this movie. Too bad the script (by Alan R. Trustman, Leslie Dixon, and Kurt Wimmer) eventually demotes her in favor of Crown’s superior genius. John McTiernan (Die Hard, Die Hard With a Vengeance) directed and Denis Leary costars. Like the original, it’s highly enjoyable trash that probably needs the big screen in order to register as pop mythit may evaporate entirely on video. But the myth by now is slightly shopworn, and the older folks in the audience might get the most pleasure out of it. (JR)