Jane Campion still has a remarkable eye for framing and imagining, but on the sad evidence of this scrambled free-for-all (1999), written with her sister Anna Campion, she’s taken leave of about half her senses. The setup is promising: a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) becomes smitten with an Indian guru, and her bourgeois family, after luring her back home with a lie that her father is dying, hires an American specialist (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her in the outback. Naturally the two of them get involved, and naturally this becomes a monumental battle of wills and sexes. As in Campion’s The Piano there’s a lot of wildness qualifying as a kind of politically correct porn, decked out on this occasion with dazzling visual effects that begin with the title written in smoke. But all sorts of questions go unanswered, and there’s little of the density found in Campion’s early work; this is mainly smoke, not fire. R, 114 min. (JR)
John Frankenheimer does an excellent job of directing an extremely dubious thriller script by Ehren Kruger, about an ex-con (Ben Affleck) forced by a group of gun smugglers (including Gary Sinise and Clarence Williams III) into helping in the heist of a roadside casino on Christmas Eve. What’s dubious about this is the contribution of the usual studio thinking: the plot has more twists than a rattlesnake, at least three twists too many if one is supposed to accept any of the characters as human. (As two who couldn’t possibly be, Charlize Theron and James Frain prove as malleable as they come.) I had a pretty good time with this until the end, when I felt so soiled by the filmmakers’ cynicism and the characters’ gratuitous viciousness that I wanted to take a bath. 105 min. (JR)
It takes spectacularly bad judgment to make Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, and Sharon Stone all look clunky and adrift. (Catherine Keener, a relative newcomer, emerges relatively unscathed, but then again she’s given much less to do.) Such misjudgment is usually the work of a committee, and even though this film was allegedly directed by one individual (Matthew Warchus), adapting with David Nicholls the work of another individual (a Sam Shepard play about a horse-racing scam), I can’t tell how much Warchus and/or Shepard can be blamed for the terminally awkward flashbacks, the unconvincing characters, the heavy-handed dramaturgy, and the overall dullness of what’s on-screen. Insofar as they’re allowed to be members of the committee, I assume they’re at least partially to blame, but it’s the whole contemporary system of picture making that probably has to be faulted for such an extravagant waste of resources. (JR)
The Tree, the Mayor, and the Media Center
What a pity that one of Eric Rohmer’s best features should have fallen between the cracks and never received a U.S. release. But what a piece of luck that the Museum of Contemporary Art should launch its series “Living Spaces: Films on Architecture” with a swell pair of French features: Jean-Luc Godard’s multilingual Contempt (see separate listing), which features a famous villa designed by writer Curzio Malaparte, and Rohmer’s conservative comedy of manners (1993), receiving its Chicago premiere. A provincial mayor (Pascal Greggory) gets a government grant to build a media center, and the film’s gentle mockery of the socialist politician, some of it articulated by his own mistress (Arielle Dombasle), shows how Rohmer must have influenced Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). Yet Rohmer exceeds even Stillman’s audacity by turning this wry fable into a musical in its closing minutes; nothing he does here is predictable, yet in retrospect it all seems logical and balanced. With Fabrice Luchini; a 35-millimeter print in stereo will be shown. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, Sunday, January 16, 4:00, 312-397-4010
From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2000). — J.R.
This 1972 release is the most underrated of all Billy Wilder comedies and arguably the one that comes closest to the sweet mastery and lilting grace of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. Jack Lemmon arrives at a small resort in Italy to claim the body of his late father, who perished in a car accident, and there he meets Juliet Mills, whose mother died in the same accident and, as it turns out, had been having an affair with the father. The development of Mills and Lemmon’s own romance over various bureaucratic complications is gradual and leisurely paced; at 144 minutes, this is an experience to roll around on your tongue. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond adapted a relatively obscure play by Samuel A. Taylor, and the lovely music is by Carlo Rustichelli; with Clive Revill and Edward Andrews. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, January 15, 3:30, 312-443-3737.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum