This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.
Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.
Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1987). — J.R.
Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Blue Velvet) star in this 1987 SF crime thriller, directed by Jack Sholder, about a police detective investigating a series of mysterious crimes who discovers that the perpetrators are all inhabited by an alien life form. Despite its reputation as a sleeper, this isn’t much more than a capably directed version of a film we’ve already seen many times before: some well-executed car chases and efficient acting (including proof that MacLachlan can be weird without David Lynch), but not much development of the familiar possession theme a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Unfortunately, many of the most intriguing details — such as the alien’s taste for loud pop music — are left hanging rather than fleshed out, and the film eventually reduces itself to mechanical (if well-crafted) action sequences. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (August 10, 1990). Even though this is favorable, I think I underestimated the achievement of this first feature; reseeing it a quarter of a century later, in preparation for a very enjoyable public Skype conversation with Whit Stillman held at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it looked much better and much richer, and the tenderness shown towards almost all of the characters is indelible. — J.R.
Whether it’s “accurate” or not, Whit Stillman’s crafty independent feature about wealthy Park Avenue teenagers and a middle-class boy who joins their ranks over one Christmas vacation is certainly well imagined, and impressively acted by a cast of newcomers (including Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Elizabeth Thompson). The simple but offbeat form of the film — which concentrates mainly on a series of social gatherings among a circle of friends, separated by fade-outs — has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested (1990). (Fine Arts)
This review, featured on the cover, appeared in the December 1985 issue of Video Times. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, and not long after it came out, I met Joe Dante for the first time, in Los Angeles (at a party given by Todd McCarthy); he’d recently read this review, and, as I recall, told me that he liked it. — J.R.
As a producer and director, Steven Spielberg seems limited to two subjects: power and magic. The power that interests him is, of course, the power that he commands, and the magic is that of his medium. Put these together and add the input of director Joe Dante, another film buff, and you get a movie about movies, triple-distilled. And the curious achievement of Gremlins is that it makes such self-absorption commercially viable, at the same time that it refuses to conform to any single, sustained social meaning. Much as the depiction of Vietnam in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was designed to placate hawks and doves alike, gremlins is cleverly contrived to please skeptics as well as believers, optimists as well as pessimists about the American way of life. Thanks to a disconnected episodic structure that suggests several separate movies crammed together — a strategy that re-creates the fragmented, discontinuous flow of TV watching — viewers of Gremlins are invited to chart out their own justifications for enjoying Dante and Spielberg’s treasure trove. Read more
From the April 1985 Video Times. — J.R.
(1981), C, Director: Ivan Passer. With Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, and Ann Dusenberry. 105 min. R, MGM/UA, $69.95.
A powerful, erotic thriller with remarkable performances from all three of its leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn), Cutter’s Way never made the impact it should have when it was released. Originally titled Cutter and Bone, after the novel by Newton Thornberg on which it is based, it quickly became a studio write-off in the immediate wake of Heaven’s Gate. Not even a brace of rave reviews and a couple of film festival prizes could save it. Rereleased a few months later as Cutter’s Way, the film went on to acquire an enthusiastic cult that continues to appreciate its sensitive, offbeat mood and its indelible portrait of disaffected America.
The film is tightly scripted by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and directed by the Czech expatriate Ivan Passer, best known for his bittersweet Czech feature Intimate Lighting, as well as such American features as Born to Win, Law and Disorder, and Silver Bears. Cutter’s Way is an in-depth portrait of the complex relations between three disaffected people. Read more
From Video Movies (August 1984). — J.R.
(1969), C, Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, and Kathleen Cleaver. 111 min. R. MGM/UA, $59.95.
In the 1960s, he could do no wrong, especially after his hit, Blow-up. In the 1980s, Michelangelo Antonioni emerges as a shamefully neglected figure — only one of his last four films (The Passenger) has been released in this country. And Zabriskie Point, the film that virtually destroyed his American reputation, offers ample proof of both the Italian director’s brilliance and his neglect of filmmaking particulars that Americans seemingly will not stand for. To understand Antonioni’s art, we must acknowledge that he is not a storyteller but a composer/choreographer of sounds and images.
As either a plausible romance about disaffected youth or as a documentary rendering of 1969 America, Zabriskie Point is often ludicrous. But if one keeps in mind that Antonioni thinks through his camera more than through his scripts — and that realism is far from his intention — one can see this film as an astonishingly beautiful achievement. As the director noted at the time, “The story is certainly a simple one. Nonetheless, the content is actually very complex. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 2007). — J.R.
Starting Out in the Evening
Directed by Andrew Wagner ***
The two most interesting movies I saw at press screenings last summer had their opening dates postponed, and it’s not hard to imagine why. As Orson Welles experienced time and again, features that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale conventional ones — and thus they’re harder to sell. This explains both the box-office success of Welles’s relatively pedestrian The Stranger (1946) and the delayed and relatively unprofitable U.S. releases of many of his other features, starting with Citizen Kane and continuing through The Lady From Shanghai, Othello, and F for Fake, among others.
Neither Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett nor Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening is a masterpiece, but both films exemplify a kind of adventurous filmmaking that’s increasingly difficult to envisage in today’s marketplace, where first impressions mean everything — it’s an unpromising climate for any art form. When I saw Charlie Bartlett — an edgy and quirky satirical teen comedy, unusual for both its nervy politics and its class consciousness — in mid-July, it was scheduled to open in early August. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 2007). — J.R.
I spent only an afternoon in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell, but the fearful silence in public places left a lingering impression. The reasons behind it are explored by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his accomplished first feature, about the Stasi, the country’s secret police, which had a staff of over 90,000, plus countless informers, and spied on friend and foe alike. The fictional story here, set between 1984 and 1991, focuses on the investigation of a popular and patriotic playwright (Sebastian Koch); that the captain assigned to his case (touchingly played by Ulrich Muhe) is mainly sympathetic and working surreptitiously on the playwright’s behalf only makes this more disturbing. With Martina Gedeck (The Good Shepherd). In German with subtitles. R, 137 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1990). — J.R.
An official sequel to the original story — that is, a movie that begins where The Exorcist, rather than Exorcist II: The Heretic, left off. William Peter Blatty, author of the original novel and its screen adaptation, wrote and directed this 1990 feature, adapting his own novel Legion, and while he apparently lacks the means to make this work at the level of its predecessor — there’s too much mumbo jumbo in the dialogue and not enough continuity in the story — his decision to hold back on visible gore and depend mainly on camera and actors (especially Brad Dourif as a mental patient possessed by Satan) to suggest the full range of his horrors frequently pays off. And even when it doesn’t work, the film is never boring. The cast also includes George C. Scott, Ed Flanders (particularly good as a likable priest), Jason Miller, Scott Wilson, Nicol Williamson, Nancy Fish, Lee Richardson, Viveca Lindfors, Zohra Lampert, and Barbara Baxley; Gerry Fisher is the cinematographer. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2007). — J.R.
Just a way station between Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and the inevitable Ocean’s Fourteen, this third installment in the franchise is outlandish even as fantasy, a labyrinthine revenge caper undertaken after evil lug Al Pacino double-crosses sweet-tempered lug Elliott Gould (part of the usual crew) out of his share of a Vegas hotel-casino. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, and Carl Reiner are all back, though Julia Roberts has taken a powder as designated sex object and been replaced by a villainous Ellen Barkin, the butt of much ageist ridicule. Predictably adolescent and smarmy, with the mix of sentimentality and cynical flippancy that’s becoming Steven Soderbergh’s specialty (even when he’s pretending to make art films), this is chewing gum for the eyes and ears, and not bad as such. PG-13, 122 min. (JR) Read more
From the November 10, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Doom Generation
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Gregg Araki
With James Duval, Rose McGowan, Johnathon Schaech, Cress Williams, and Dustin Nguyen.
Kicking and Screaming
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Baumbach and Oliver Berkman
With Josh Hamilton, Olivia d’Abo, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles, Carlos Jacott, Eric Stoltz, Elliott Gould, Cara Buono, and Parker Posey.
Chet: Here’s a joke. How do you make God laugh?
Chet: Make a plan.
— Kicking and Screaming
As luck would have it, I had my second looks at The Doom Generation and Kicking and Screaming, two radically different youth movies about defeat and paralysis, back-to-back. Both seemed better the second time around, though for very different reasons. Noah Baumbach’s first feature, Kicking and Screaming, which I’d originally seen and liked at Cannes last May, seems to have been tightened up in the editing and given more focus. Perhaps because I disliked Gregg Araki’s fifth feature, The Doom Generation, when I first saw it last August, I found it harder to decide on a second viewing whether it had been changed in the interim; in any case I found myself disliking it less. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2006). — J.R.
After a terrorist explosion kills the passengers on a New Orleans ferry, an ATF agent (Denzel Washington), discovering that a form of time travel can send him back to the event, resolves to save the life of a woman (Paula Patton) killed shortly before, as well as prevent the explosion. The story recalls Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) in its romantic moodiness and has some of the philosophical poignance common to tales of time travel. But the SF hardware (enjoyable) and thriller mechanics (mechanical) of this Jerry Bruckheimer slam-banger don’t mesh very well with reflection, and the action trumps most evidence of thought. Tony Scott directed a script by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio; with Val Kilmer and James Caviezel. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2000). — J.R.
It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the Hollywood blacklist that directors such as Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield had to hide behind fronts or pseudonyms, whereas Jules Dassin was able to direct this atmospheric 1955 French thriller under his own name and still get it shown in the U.S., where it was something of an art-house hit. (Oddly, as a cast member he uses the name Perlo Vita.) Shot in Paris and its environs and adapted from an Auguste le Breton novel with the author’s assistance, this is a familiar but effective parable of honor among thieves, and though it may not be as ideologically meaningful as the juicy noirs Dassin made for Hollywood — The Naked City (1947), Thieves’ Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950) — it’s probably more influential, above all for its half-hour sequence without dialogue that meticulously shows the whole process of an elaborate jewelry heist. With Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, and Robert Manuel. In French with subtitles. 118 min. (JR)
Starting with this review, which appeared in the October 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 43, no. 513), I’ve elected to reproduce some of my reviews from that magazine without the accompanying credits and synopses, simply to spare myself the drudgery (at least for the time being) of having to retype all this material, for which I hope I can be excused. –J.R.
Director: Brian De Palma
Pondering over her restoration work in a Florence cathedral, Sandra (Geneviève Bujold) wonders aloud to Michael (Cliff Robertson) whether she should risk removing a painting’s surface to see what lies beneath it, or else restore only the first layer. “Hold on to it”, Michael replies, giving voice not only to his surface obsession but to De Palma’s cool strategy –- to reconstruct or “restore” the mood and manner of Hitchcock’s Vertigo some eighteen years after the fact without worrying too much about the reasons or impulses underlying them. An effective variant on the director’s earlier Sisters — with mother and daughter taking over the symmetrical “mirror” pattern formerly established by Siamese twins, and diverse echoes of Vertigo, Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, and Marnie assuming much the same function here as Rear Window and Psycho did in the earlier film — Obsession also resurrects some of Hitchcock’s most visible characteristics (tight plot construction, extended doppelgänger effects, precise control of point-of-view) while blithely neglecting others (above all, humor and a consistent moral position). Read more