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 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)
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
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1995). — J.R.
The neglected Canadian animator Richard Williams directed and coscripted this mind-boggling London- made cartoon musical feature (1995), the first to be made in ‘Scope since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959. It’s a movie that’s been in and out of production since 1968, apparently because Williams mainly worked on it as a labor of love in between more lucrative projects (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Eventually he lost creative control, and it’s impossible to say whether the movie would have been more or less coherent without the postproduction interference: the storytelling is perfunctory, but the imaginative animation, which revels in two-dimensionality, is often wonderful — an improbable blend of Escher, op art, Persian miniatures, and Chuck Jones that shoots off in every direction and seems great for kids. Arabian Knight is a lot more memorable than either Aladdin or Pocahontas (though its cultural references are much more varied and confused). The cast of offscreen voices includes the late Vincent Price as the main villain, Matthew Broderick as the hero, a humble cobbler, Jennifer Beals as the princess, Eric Bogosian, Toni Collette, and Jonathan Winters as a disreputable thief. Margaret French collaborated on the script, and Robert Folk and Norman Gimbel wrote the songs. Read more
This appeared in the Chicago Reader (July 30, 1993). –J.R.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES
Directed and written by Terence Davies
With Leigh McCormack, Marjorie Yates, Ayse Owens, Nicholas Lamont, Anthony Watson, Tina Malone, and Jimmy Wilde.
I began making films [out of] a deep need . . . to come to terms with my family’s history and suffering, to make sense of the past and to explore my own personal terrors, both mental and spiritual, and to examine the destructive nature of Catholicism. Film as an expression of guilt, film as confession (psychotherapy would be much cheaper but a lot less fun). — Terence Davies
With The Long Day Closes English filmmaker Terence Davies completes his second autobiographical trilogy. (Faber and Faber has conveniently published the screenplays of the six films — all his films to date — with an introduction by Davies, under the title A Modest Pageant.) I haven’t seen the first trilogy — Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) — but the first two parts of the second, shot in 1985 and 1987 and distributed as a single feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), still strikes me as one of the greatest of all English films. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2001). — J.R.
John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall directed the individual episodes of this 1962 triptych about the settling of the American frontier, originally released in Cinerama. The Ford episode, about the Civil War, is uncommonly good; the rest is expendable, especially without the three-screen process. With Carroll Baker, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. 155 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.
As in Rambling Rose, director Martha Coolidge does an interesting and effective job here of reinterpreting from a woman’s perspective autobiographical and nostalgic material written by a man. This time the material is an adaptation by Neil Simon of his own play about living for a spell in Yonkers in 1942 (Brad Stoll plays the narrator-protagonist at age 15) with his younger brother (Mike Damus), bitter and tyrannical grandmother (Irene Worth), and wacky aunt (Mercedes Ruehl), while his widowed father (Jack Laufer) struggles in the south to pay off some debts. Ironically, the movie comes into its own only in scenes from which the teenage hero is absent; the rest of the time it is charming Simon material without much staying power. Richard Dreyfuss plays a criminal uncle who briefly hides out with the family and David Strathairn’s a slow-witted movie theater usher the wacky aunt wants to marry. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 9, 1990). — J.R.
John Ford claimed to be sick in order to get out of directing this drama about Jeanne Crain as a white-skinned black woman passing for white who returns to her family in the deep south. Elia Kazan took over the production, and the results are uneven, though fitfully interesting. Ethel Waters has a commanding presence as Crain’s mother, and Ethel Barrymore and William Lundigan also star. A companion piece of sorts to Kazan’s previous Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck, a Jew, plays a gentile impersonating a Jew in order to test anti-Semitism. Here it’s Crain, a white woman, playing a black woman who passes for white — an even more bogus way of dealing with the issues involved (1949). (JR)
These liner notes were written for Home Vision Entertainment circa 1997. —J.R.
Drôle de drame
The English release title of Drôle de drame (1937) —- set in London circa 1900, and based on J. Storer Cloutson’s English novel His First Offense — is Bizarre Bizarre. This curious label derives from a conversation between Irwin Molyneux (Michel Simon) — a horticulturist who’s been writing crime novels on the sly, under the pen name of Félix Chapel, at the insistence of his wife Margaret (Françoise Rosay), to raise money to keep up their social appearances —- and Archibald Soper, the Bishop of Bedford (Louis Jouvet), Margaret’s hypocritically prudish cousin, who’s been publicly denouncing Chapel’s novels, and has just invited himself over for dinner due to his partiality for Margaret’s orange duck.
Unfortunately, Margaret’s cook and butler have just quit, leaving Margaret in a state of a panic—-because her servants are as necessary to her public image as the money brought in by Irwin’s moonlighting. So she prepares the duck herself while hiding in the kitchen, gets Irwin’s assistant Eva (Nadine Vogel) to serve it, and asks Irwin to come up with a story explaining Margaret’s absence.
In response to the Bishop’s prying questions, Irwin impulsively comes up with two explanations — that Margaret left for the country to visit friends and that she had to leave suddenly due to the measles —- and then tries to reconcile them by adding that it’s her friends who have the measles. Read more
This book review was the first thing I ever wrote for The Soho News, a small-time weekly competitor of The Village Voice that I wrote for every week for about a year and a half (1980-81), reviewing books as well as movies on a fairly regular basis. I did 68 pieces for them in all, and this first effort, as I recall, was a kind of trial balloon. — J.R.
The Greening of Switzerland
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party
By Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, $9.95
“The meat is excellent, but I have no appetite,” remarks the noble, grief-stricken narrator of Graham Greene’s opulent 21st novel — plain old Alfred Jones, a middle-class voyeur like us — at the climactic title party, in response to a query from the wealthy title host and villain. Then he adds more confidentially, to the reader, “I helped myself to another glass of Mouton Rothschild; it wasn’t for the flavor of the wine that I drank it, for my palate seemed dead, it was for the distant promise of a sort of oblivion.” The same sort of delicious oblivion, one might add, that we normally expect from a new Greene novel — which is the sort that the latest one amply supplies. Read more
From the July 8, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
JOHN HUSTON & THE DUBLINERS
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Lilyan Sievernich.
The on-location production documentary, a movie chronicling the shooting of a movie, is a fairly recent phenomenon, although its equivalent in print has been around much longer. (For instance, Micheal MacLiammoir’s Put Money in Thy Purse, about Orson Welles’s Othello, and Lillian Ross’s Picture, about John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, were both published in 1952.) One usual difference between the written and the filmed reports is that the latter tend to be inside jobs financed by the producers of the features in question, and consequently are promotional in nature rather than critical: Chris Marker’s short feature about the making of Ran and Ron Mann’s documentary about the making of Legal Eagles are two recent examples, and Lilyan Sievernich’s hour-long account of John Huston shooting The Dead belongs in this category. Yet there are a few things about Sievernich’s film that make it rather special.
Huston was 82 and very close to dying when he made The Dead, and everyone connected with the film was acutely aware of it. He directed from a wheelchair, was hooked up to an oxygen machine for his emphysema, and generally viewed the actors on the set from a TV monitor. Read more