Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Real Enough

By Rob Nelson, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 8, 1997: 

All Over Me The trouble with neo-realism is that its codes--hand-held camerawork, run-down locations, raw acting, plenty of background noise--encourage us to judge the story on the basis of how "real" it seems. So when this Kids-esque portrait of two teen girlfriends from Hell's Kitchen includes life-threatening drug abuse, same-sex necking, and gay-bashing murder in its string of urban vignettes, the slice-of-life can't help but show its strings. On the other hand, the Sichel sisters (first-time director Alex and screenwriter Sylvia) get plenty of details exactly right--particularly the push-pull dynamic between their protagonists, Ellen (Tara Subkoff), whose self-destructive program involves cocaine and a scary boyfriend, and Claude (Alison Folland), whose romantic love for her best friend compels her to put up with a lot. Even better is the Sichels' avoidance of trendy nihilism in favor of constructive solutions, as Claude gradually resolves to do the right thing, taking inspiration from a cute guitar player (Leisha Hailey) in an all-girl bar band. (RN)

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis As lovely and brittle now as it was when it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1971, this newly restored Vittorio de Sica classic deserves to be rediscovered in its latest video release. Set in pre-World War II Italy, the story revolves around a wealthy Jewish family living behind great stone walls on the main street of a village. The protagonist is Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), a working-class youth dealing with his political awakening and with his romantic feelings for the remote, capricious Micol Finzi-Contini (the lovely Dominique Sanda, who looks as though she were carved into the marble walls of her character's lush estate). On one level, the film is a harsh critique of classism, particularly in the face of an evolving fascist state. On another, more engaging level, it's a film about longing--both for the unattainable things of the present and for the imagined stability of the past. (NM)

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) There's more to director Satyajit Ray than his classic Apu trilogy, as evidenced by the recent video release of a half-dozen other masterworks. One of the least seen of these, Jalsaghar (1958), examines the twilight years of a spoiled, aging aristocrat (Chhabi Biswas). Presiding over a decaying mansion and a dwindling fortune, this childish Bengali zamindar, or feudal landlord, spends much of his time slumped on an unroyal throne, lazily sucking smoke from a hookah as if it were a teething ring. His only other pacifier is music. Despite the fact that he's down to his last remaining jewels, he continues to host concerts by classical musicians in his dusty music room--boasting to an increasingly uninterested audience. The director's moody visual style befits his complex look at a character not unlike Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane--a misanthrope who, despite his wealth of toys, has doomed himself to living arrogantly impoverished and alone. Jalsaghar's "Rosebud" is revealed in the film's first and last shots of a cobwebbed chandelier--Ray's symbol of antiquated opulence. (RN)

The Singing Detective This legendary 1986 British TV miniseries is finally available stateside in a six-tape, seven-hour package. Michael Gambon stars as Philip E. Marlow, a pulp novelist who spends the film laid up in hospital with a severe, body-covering skin rash. To cope with the pain, he tries to remember the details of one of his long-out-of-print detective stories, but his mind wanders, and soon the plot of his novel is converging with memories of childhood and hallucinations of doctors and patients who break into song. Directed by Jon Amiel, from a screenplay by the late Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective has become a touchpoint in British popular culture, influencing everybody from comic-book writer Alan Moore to horror novelist Clive Barker. Credit Potter's clever wordplay, his facility with stream-of-consciousness structure, and his bleak strand of sentimentalism, which implies that our failings are inherent in everything we have wrought. (RN)

The Whole Wide World An old-fashioned melodrama of widescreen proportions, this modestly budgeted indie works as a portrait of the tortured artist, as a critique of stifling sex roles, and as a showcase for two soulful, hugely expressive actors. And unlike other romantic weepers that have reached for epic status lately, there's no mistaking the attraction here--or the tragedy. Set in the West Texas farm country of the mid-'30s, The Whole Wide World describes the tumultuous relationship between pulp writer Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) and aspiring author Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger). She believes in salt-of-the-earth stories about "ordinary people," while his Conan novels are lurid yarns in which barbarian men with tree-trunk arms rescue maidens who "melt like butter on a hot skillet." By extension, their courtship has him acting out a comic-book style of macho masochism that seems tongue-in-cheek but isn't. Ultimately, it's the strength of their personalities that brings these two together and keeps them apart: He strains to meet her expectations by putting on a tie, while she refuses to abet his neurosis by settling for a workaholic, no matter how pure his pulp. (RN)

Off the wall--alternative to new releases

Creature Comforts I'm not knocking Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas or Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, but for animated fun that will delight for years, pick up this Nick Park Oscar-winner, now packaged with a handful of other shorts from the prestigious British company Aardmann Animation. Anyone who has enjoyed Park's Wallace and Gromit series won't need to be sold on the charms of his detailed claymation; but for the uninitiated, the five-minute "Creature Comforts" is a good place to start. Park asked Londoners for their opinions about zoos and about the welfare state; then he put those comments in the mouths of polar bears, pumas, apes, and turtles. The result is a hilariously poignant commentary on cages of all kinds, and what it takes to be happy in your own environment. (NM)


Switchblade Sisters (Criterion, $49.95) My gripe isn't with the presentation of Jack Hill's 1975 girl-gang gem, which was given a token rerelease last year by Rolling Thunder, Quentin Tarantino's boutique imprint at Miramax. On disc, it looks fabulous, sounds great, and comes packed with extras, including a whole third side featuring vintage drive-in trailers and Hill's impressive student film at USC. But why does Hill, a talented but erratic Roger Corman protg, rate this kingly treatment? You won't find out from Tarantino's self-obsessed, inarticulate audio commentary. Furthermore, the attention lavished on Hill illustrates what a slipshod job Criterion and Rolling Thunder did with Wong Kar-Wai's stunning Chungking Express. It's one of the decade's most original and groundbreaking films, and yet the disc doesn't even list the full cast, let alone provide trailers or a career overview. Such is the inequity of fandom that a skilled maker of lively trash gets treated with more care than a developing master--thereby inverting the purpose of enshrinement on disc. Then again, if Switchblade Sisters can find this cozy a niche after 20 years, Wong's place in cinema history should eventually be secure. (JR)

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