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42 reviews in total 
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29 out of 34 people found the following review useful:
One of the best American films of the 1980's, 25 January 2005

This is one of the best American films of the 1980's. It is based on the true story of the wife of the Allegheny County Jail warden, Kate Soffel (Diane Keaton) who falls in love with a sexually alluring working class inmate, Ed Biddle (Mel Gibosn) in turn of the century Pittsburgh and plots to help him and his brother, Jack (Matthew Modine) escape. Director Gillian Armstrong and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner brilliantly decided to deal with the story in an elliptical and indirect way. We aren't telegraphed anything. We don't know if the Biddle's are innocent. We don't really understand why Kate falls in love with Ed. We aren't directly told why Kate is so disappointed in her life. The filmmakers takes this personal story and turns it into a progressive feminist mood poem. It is extraordinary to see a post 1970's American film this complex and this progressive.

Diane Keaton gives a remarkably complex and nuanced performance. The film is almost unimaginable with her in the leading role. Early in the film she communicates the torment and longing of Kate in a way that warrants comparisons with the greatest acting of the silent cinema. We see the depression and desperation in Kate's face in a way that rivals Maria Falconetti in Dryer's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Lilian Gish in Victor Sjöström's THE WIND and D.W. Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOM'S. One of the remarkably subversive aspects of the film is its relationship to Kate's Christianity (which becomes particularly pointed watched in the contemporary context and thinking about Mel Gibson's PASSION OF THE Christ fundamentalism). She is a bit scary creeping about the prison trying to sell doomed men on a faith that will set them free. The suggestion is that it is this same faith, or more precisely the way Christianity is used as a structuring device of patriarchy, that has trapped Kate into her own life sentence. When she becomes aroused by Ed everything shifts, she looks different, some kind of remarkable radiance shines forth from Keaton's face. Her bible lessons become a pretext for sexual release. She literally makes love to Ed through the bars with his brother nearby, which adds a remarkable charge of voyeurism to the proceedings.

Mel Gibson has never been photographed more sensually then in this film. There is a scene late in the film, in which, he is lying in bed with the sunlight playing on his face that in which his beauty is almost angelic. He's photographed and contextualized the way male directors have often shot young classically beautiful women (think of Julie Christie in David Lean's Dr. ZHIVAGO, Joseph Losey's THE GO BETWEEN, or Donald Cammell's DEMONSEED or Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN or Sydney Pollock's 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR). Armstong also allows Gibson's sense of humor to peek out to suggest layers to this character. We never totally trust Ed, yet we root for him or at least root for Kate's vision of him.

The cinematography by Russell Boyd is exceptionally original and the production design emphasizes the grimy oppressive nature of an industrial town. this was actually a critique of the film at the time of its release. It was too dark, mainstream reviewers said. Well actually its historically accurate. Pittsburgh was so soot filled and grimy that the street lights had to stay on all day long! This is the great environmental tragedy of the industrial revolution. Armstrong uses this look for strong dramatic effect and creates a kind of mood poem here that reminds me of the best work of Antonioni and of Werner Herzog remarkable NOSFERATU. Like in that great film we can never quiet situate ourselves, the oppressive dim look of the film suggests we might be in a kind of waking nightmare. Is the environment part of Kate's psychic and physical affliction? Who could be happy or healthy living in this kind of relentlessly dismal environ? When we finally leave Pittsburgh Boyd and Armstrong present us with some of the most lovingly photographed images of sun and snow in American cinema. The viewer so ready for these brighter images that they alter our the way we connect to the story.

That this film was neither a critical nor a commercial success is a tragedy for the contemporary Hollywood cinema. Its failure became one of the many excuses for the overwhelming turn to the banal cookie cutter cinema that Hollywood is known for today. One hopes that cinephiles everywhere will reclaim ambitious films like MRS. SOFFEL as an example

12 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Interesting, but, sentimental adaptation of the novel, 25 January 2005

Very hard to take, but, historically important and interesting. There are some wonderful scenes- Eliza and little Harry's escape from the plantation in the wintry night, their flight across the ice covered river, the surreal death of little Eva, the turning of the tables (first by Eliza and later by Cassie) that have enslaved women using whips to beat off white men! Margarita Fischer is quite good as Eliza. She has an interesting appearance that is quite right for this kind of melodrama. Virginia Grey as the impossibly saintly Little Eva is weirdly intense- sort of like those unsettling early performance by Jodie Foster. It works to make this character strange enough to be believable. Most of the actors playing Black slaves (some of them played by unnaturally painted white actors) have a more difficult time of it- James B. Lowe does his best and does bring some quiet dignity to the central role of Uncle Tom- but the script and conception defeat him at times. Arthur Edmund Carewe (an actor whom IMDb fascinatingly claims is of Native American descent- Chickasaw- and yet is said to have been born in Tebiziond Turkey?) is quite good as George Harris the light skinned husband of Eliza and father of Harry- although he barely appears in the film since much of George's story has been edited out. The most painfully offensive scenes belong to Mona Ray who plays the ridiculous caricature of the happy little mischievous slave Topsy. Interestingly the DVD has deleted scenes that push Topsy further towards a psychological study in self hatred- check them out of you rent this one- I am not sure if they were deleted in 1927 or at a later re-release date (Topsy uses the N word to refer to herself in the deleted scenes and in one fascinating scene ritualistically powders herself white in an attempt to become "good" like Ms. Eva. Of course, the film is a ridiculous and utterly offensive view of the history of slavery- that shamelessly panders to racist notions of European superiority. In this it does not depart from novel as much as make the narrative mo

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Wonderful work of Neo-realism from China, 25 January 2005

This is a wonderfully conceived first feature that explores the bleak lives of two young people, both modern day victims of the excesses of the cultural revolution and "globalization", who meet and become intimate. The most obvious reference point for me here were the films of John Cassavettes, the most famous neo-realist work of Rossellini and much of the best early work of the French new wave (Varda, Godard, Truffaut of the 400 Blows). The performances by the two leads, Wang Lingbo and Du Huanan are easily two of the best performances of this year. In fact, the amazing screen chemistry and inventiveness reminded me of the best moments of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland's work in KLUTE. This is an amazing assured and accomplished low budget first feature, beautifully lensed with a 16 mm camera and then blown up

34 out of 39 people found the following review useful:
One of the best narrative films of the 1980's, 24 January 2005

The film is a fictional reworking of the true story of the Esslin Sisters- one of whom was a successful social democratic feminist writer and the other a revolutionary member of the "terrorist" Baader-Meinhof Group (also called the Red Army Faction). Three members of the real Badder Meinhof group, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Enslin, and Jean-Carl Raspe mysteriously "committed suicide" while in prison after other members of the RAF allegedly participated in the kidnapping and eventual murder of a wealthy businessman and an aborted hijacking attempt. Popular opinion in Germany (and most other places) has always held that Baader, Enslin, and Raspe were murdered by the state. Much evidence seems to point towards reasonable doubt that the three took their own lives.

Von Totta takes the story of these two women and creates a kind of historical canvas (much as Orson Welles does with Hearst in Citizen Kane) to explore a wide range of issues concerning modern political and social life. The film is remarkably fair minded. Although, the narrative spends much more time with Julianne the social democratic journalist it does not stack the deck towards her. Her reformist views towards social change seems forced and at times desperate. Nor does Von Trotta, romanticize Marianne, the revolutionary. Her actions are often ill conceived and her confidence that history will prove her correct seem equally forced and desperate. Amazingly, Von Trotta creates a dialectic in this film by actually sympathizing with both women. She seems to suggest that in the remarkable confusion and despair of the late 20th century simply to attempt to remain engaged with a project that desires fundamental change is an act of hope.

The film is probably best known for its impeccable acting. The two leading performers Barbara Sukowa (Marianne) and Jutta Lempe (Julianne) are extraordinary. There scenes together are examples of some of the finest acting in contemporary cinema. The supporting performances in this film are also superb. One of the remarkable things is the way the film shows that two children from the same family could become radicalized in such different ways. The film definitely roots the women's politicalization in their family and national history. Why does one Sister become convinced that violent revolution is possible and necessary, while, the other becomes convinced that a nonviolent "war of position" is the more appropriate choice? Both women have clearly broken from the conservative tradition of their upbringing in the home of their Protestant Minister Father, but, what is it that has caused the ideological differences? Von Trotta is wise enough not to answer this question directly or didactically.

The late Canadian film critic, Jay Scott said in a review of the film: "The methodology is Proustian: Von Trotta cuts with effortless clarity back and forth through the sister's lives." This seems to be a remarkably efficient way of explaining the films structure and effect. The remarkable editing of this film by Dagmar Hirtz (whose excellent work has won him three German film awards- Check out his equally amazing contributions to Maximillian Schells END OF THE GAME, Jeanine Meerapfel's MALOU, and Volker Schlondorff's VOYAGER) and the cinematography by Franz Rath (whose lensed most of Von Trotta's films) should be studied as textbook examples of narrative film craftsmanship. The technical aspects of the film make the time tripping narrative technique seem natural rather than distancing.

Later in the same review, Scott says what I think is the most precise statement ever written about the film: "Marianne and Julianne is a document that struggles to come to terms with an impossible past in a barely feasible present, and its director appears to realize that her film, like its heroines, is trapped by history, which is why she avoids pretending to be definitive - either about the sisters, or about the agonies of the nation she has presumed to concretize in their story." This defiant stance of refusing to be definitive about character motivations and ethical/ideological essences connects the film to a wide variety of other masterworks that have also used contemporary history in a similarly complex way- I am reminded particularly of Alain Resnais (esp. Hiroshima Mon Amor and Muriel). I can't recommend this film highly enough. It is to my mind one of the most

Fever (1999)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Surprisingly well made thriller., 5 April 2003

I was completely unprepared for this surprisingly well made thriller. The films stars Henry Thomas as Nick Parker a struggling painter living in a realistically terrible New York Apartment building. Nick lives at the poverty line, his only income being continuing education classes he teaches at a community college. Early in the film a terrible murder occurs in his building and Nick and the audience spend the rest of the film coming to terms with what may have really happened.

The film was written and directed by Alex Winter, most famous as the star of The Bill and Ted films, from this effort he has great promise to become a major director. He works extremely well here with the actors getting good performances from Thomas, Teri Hatcher, Bill Duke and David O'Hara. It is the cinematography by Joe DeSalvo that lifts this film to the level of something truly special. DeSalvo manages to capture shots of the New York skyline that seem unprecedented in American film and his interior work is remarkable evocative and reminiscent of the very best work of Gordon Willis and John Alonzo. Surprisingly this is the last film DeSalvo has made (it is now 2003) I am not sure why this is, but, one hopes he will have a long and prosperous c

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
An extremely well executed short film., 2 April 2002

Narrative short films are difficult works of art to carry off. Unlike, feature films they require a rare kind of precision to register on us emotionally or intellectually. This beautiful short film by Julia Kwan is a nearly perfect example of the form. The film is, in fact, so breathtakingly accomplished as narrative that I long to see Kwan develop into a major filmmaker. The story told in a concise twenty two minutes explores the lives of three Chinese-canadian sisters who become obsessed with the corpse of a rat that their mother has killed. Kwans mastery at visual storytelling and at working with the young actors is amazing considering this is only her second film. The glorious cinematography is by the very talented, Dylan McLeod, who shot Clement Virgo's LOVE COME DOWN. If this film is ever playing at a festival near you check it out. You will not be disappointed.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Good thrill with exceptional cinematography, 1 April 2002

Alan J. Pakula has created another exceptional looking political thriller that, at least, in terms of visual style matches his great earlier work- (Klute, The Parallax View, All The Presidents Men, Rollover). Unfortunately, the script based on a John Grisham novel is one of the weakest of his career. The premise of a conservative capitalist conspiracy to assassinate members of the supreme court is certainly credible, but, it doesn't quite translate into a 140 minute film. The remarkable look of the film is so remiscent of the director better work that the audience keeps waiting for richer character development. We only find this development during the first half hour of the film especially with the rich character of Thomas Callahan (very well played by Sam Shepard). Once we get into the "action" part of the film things get much more standard and morally clear- a real let down for fans of Pakula's excellent Klute or The Parallax View where the tension is created as much by the character's insecurities as it is by the actual physical threats against them. Pakula is a marvelous director of actors and this remains true here- Denzel Washington does fine sturdy work here in what is really a supporting role as Gray Grantham, a Washington reporter who comes to the aid of Shaw. Washington shines here and he virtually overwhealms the film. Julia roberts is adequate as the protagonist, Darby Shaw. Actually I wish that Cynthia Nixon, who has a small role would have been cast as the lead. Nixon is a brave, complicated actress and could have gone deeper places then Roberts. As noted before Sam Shepard does some of his best film work here and there is also nice work from John Heard, Stanley Tucci, Robert Culp and Jon Lithgow. However, it is the films cinematography by the gifted Stephen Goldblatt that makes me recommend this film. Goldblatt works here in beautifully composed low lit scenes. Some of the night scenes and scenes in the Oval office are so remarkably well photographed that the inadequacies of script disappear. The art direction and set decoration are equally sublime throughout the film using a muted color pallete throughout most of the films- that contrasts sharply with the vibrant colors of the beginning and end

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A surprisingly well made hollywood remake of a Hitchcock classic, 15 November 1999

This was really a very big surprise. The screenwriters have really updated the story and added an even greater critique of upper class patriarchy. All three lead performers are at the top of their form and Andrew Davies direction is his best effort. I was really impressed by the creation of this nightmere existence for the Paltrow character, betrayed by both Husband and lover. I also enjoyed the rather nasty view of ruling class life. My one disappointment was a really cliched, classist and racist scene when Paltrow goes (moronically) to investigate a key clue in the case. She goes to a low income, racially diverse neighborhood and the poor and working class inhabitants are used like some kind of dangerous, exotic back drop. This characterization is stupid, dangerous and dishonest. It is a tragic flaw in an entertaining film that could has a great deal to say about power and wealth.

Eye of God (1997)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A wonderfully acted film., 24 October 1999

This film is wonderfully acted and well directed. Martha Plimpton has never been better. She plays a diner waitress who falls in "love" with an incarcerated man via a pen-pal relationship. The man played by Kevin Anderson is intensely religious and becomes a more and more controlling force in the life of Plimpton's character. There is a second part of the story involving an emotionally troubled young man who has witnessed a act of terrible violence.

What is so powerful about this film is the complete evocation of a specific time and place. Without in any way being patronizing this film beautifully observes rural working class life. The film is very moving about gender relationships and the way religion can become a very narrow trap for some people. The one disappointment is that the film plays into "anti-crime" hysteria in its portrayal of one character as beyond redemption.

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The relationship of Dunaway and Redford complicates and deepens the political message of the film., 7 August 1999

This is on the surface a well executed, intelligent, "hollywood liberal" thriller about the inner workings of the CIA. However the depth of characterization offered by the wonderful cast deepens and complicates the politics offering a far more radical statement than the obvious one of the CIA as a corrupt tool of an imperialist government. I think the complexity of the film comes in its willingness to be resolutely honest about the leading character played by Robert Redford in what surely is his richest screen performance. Redford plays a lower level literary analyst who works with a team of other intellectuals analyzing global works of contemporary literature for the CIA. One day Redford returns from lunch to find all his co-workers dead and thus the story begins. Redford tries to uncover the reasons for the assassinations of his co-workers and stay alive himself- generally learning that he cannot trust anyone or anything connected to this government. What really works for the story is that Redford's charcter does not follow the classical "liberal" format of the innocent American who "really, really believes in this wonderful government" and then has a brutal awakening. We see Redford as an all too human opportunist who already has a critique of what the CIA might be doing with his analysis, but, chooses to keep doing it because on the materialistic plane it is a great job. The stories deeper political currents really take off when, in desperation, Redford kidnaps a middle class artist magnificently played by Faye Dunaway. Dunaway here gives a rich, quirky, understated performance that creates a context for some of the stranger motivations the script puts her character through. Dunaway plays a woman totally alienated from her own life and social milieu - she is in what seems a difficult abstract relationship with a man, chooses to hide her best artistic work away from the public, and seems desperate for a sense of adventure or release. The "relationship" between Redford and Dunaway is a miniature "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" scenario in and of itself and some may feel it is a pointless and overwhelming (based on the sex appeal and charisma of the two leading performers) plot diversion. I think it is deeply connected to the overall message of the film (which by the way actually predicts "Desert Storm" type antics by the United States) the distillation of a particular time when many middle and working class American's seemed to be "awakening" to the imperialist and capitalist nature of their country and the implications of this to their own sense of ethics.

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