Monthly Archives: September 2018

Touch of Class [TITANIC]

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 1997). — J.R.

Titanic

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Cameron

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, and Suzy Amis.

I suppose there’s something faintly ridiculous about a $200-million movie that argues on behalf of true love over wealth and even bandies about a precious diamond as a central narrative device — like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud — to clinch its point. Yet for all the hokeyness, Titanic kept me absorbed all 194 minutes both times I saw it. It’s nervy as well as limited for writer-director-coproducer James Cameron to reduce a historical event of this weight to a single invented love story, however touching, and then to invest that love story with plot details that range from unlikely to downright stupid. But one clear advantage of paring away the subplots that clog up disaster movies is that it allows one to achieve a certain elemental purity.

This movie tells you a great deal about first class on the ship, a little bit about third class, and nothing at all about second class. According to Walter Lord’s 1955 nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember, which includes a full passenger list, 279 of the 2,223 passengers were in second class, and 112 of them survived.… Read more »

Hack Attack [THE SECRET WINDOW]

From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 2004). — J.R.

Secret Window

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by David Koepp

With Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, and Len Cariou.

I’ve seen four movie adaptations of Stephen King books that have writers as heroes — The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), The Dark Half (1993), and now Secret Window — and I know of a few others. This isn’t necessarily self-indulgent on King’s part. An author this prolific would eventually run out of material if he didn’t use his own experience as a writer, and besides I happen to prefer the plotlines of The Shining and Misery to those of other King stories I know. He understands what it means to be a writer driven crazy by his own demons (in The Shining) as well as by some version of his public (in Misery), and even though he makes the heroes in both cases fairly dislikable, we wind up ensnarled in their dilemmas anyway. He also seems to have an astute take on writer’s block, suggesting that writing too much and repeating oneself can be as much a form of creative blockage as writing too little.… Read more »

Celebrity Guest [MISERY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 7, 1990). — J.R.

MISERY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by William Goldman

With James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, and Lauren Bacall.

Although it didn’t impress me too much when I first saw it, The King of Comedy has gradually come to seem the most important and resonant of Martin Scorsese’s features, largely because of all it has to say about the values we place on both stars and fans in contemporary society. Part of what makes it so pungent is the casting: by all rights, talk-show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) should be the “hero” and his crazed kidnapper-fans Rupert and Masha (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) the “villains”; but De Niro after all is a charismatic star in his own right, while Lewis has long been someone Americans love to hate. The same kind of twist on stereotypes occurs in the story: Rupert is an obnoxious loser and Masha a borderline psycho, but Langford’s offstage persona is so morose and unpleasant that next to him they seem like models of humanity. To make matters even more disturbing, Masha clearly regards Langford as a substitute for her own neglectful parents, and Rupert’s climactic stand-up comedy debut, won as a ransom for kidnapping Langford, largely consists of contemptuously trashing his own family and background.… Read more »

Hack Job [The PSYCHO remake]

There are few films of the past decade that have irritated me quite as much as Van Sant’s idiotic remake of Psycho, and in some ways I was irritated even more by the rationalizations some cinephiles came up with in their tortured efforts to justify it. I tried my best to behave like a gentleman towards Lisa Alspector, the Reader film reviewer whose capsule sparked my longer review in the December 25, 1998 issue, but I don’t know whether or not I succeeded. — J.R.

 

 

Psycho

Rating — Worthless

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Joseph Stefano

With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, Ann Haney, and Chad Everett.

 

Psycho has never been one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures. The first time I saw it, during its initial release in 1960, I’d already read the Robert Bloch novel it’s based on, a fairly routine horror thriller, so the surprise ending was anything but surprising. I saw the movie back-to-back with Let’s Make Love, which I liked a lot more. Yves Montand spoke English awkwardly, but Marilyn Monroe was irresistible — for practically the only time in her late career, she played a character who was smart and feisty.… Read more »

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)

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Metaphysics and Slapstick [THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN]

From the March 17, 1989 Chicago Reader. At least in memory, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to remind me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. — J.R.

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam

With John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Winston Dennis, and Valentina Cortese.

CHANCES ARE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Emile Ardolino

Written by Perry Howze and Randy Howze

With Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher McDonald.

I can no longer recall whether any of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was read to me as a child. But there’s no question that these tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymous (the Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).… Read more »

Everywar [THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 1990). — J.R.

THE RAGGEDY RAWNEY

*** ( A must-see)

Directed by Bob Hoskins

Written by Hoskins and Nicole De Wilde

With Dexter Fletcher, Hoskins, Zoe Nathenson, Dave Hill, Ian Dury, and Zoe Wanamaker.

An offbeat and highly original English film that’s been very slow making the rounds — Bob Hoskins’s The Raggedy Rawney (1987) — may be in trouble commercially. It didn’t even show in England until about two years after its completion, and it took an additional year to reach Chicago. Now that it’s here, it has at least five serious handicaps:

(1) At first glance, hardly anyone has any idea what the title means. (“Rawney,” a rather specialized word not found in most dictionaries, roughly means “magical madwoman.”)

(2) As an actor, Hoskins is basically known for his roles in contemporary settings, usually within a noir context — either as a gangster (as in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa) or as a detective (as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). His part in The Raggedy Rawney, as a sort of gypsy leader, plays off neither of these associations, nor is it the lead role.

(3) Inspired by a legend told to Hoskins as a child by his grandmother that reportedly can be traced all the way back to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1443), the movie is nonetheless given a setting so vaguely defined that the best description I’ve seen yet (published in the synopsis in Monthly Film Bulletin) is: “Sometime during the first half of the 20th century, in a European country at war.”… Read more »

East Coast Journal (1975)

From Film Comment (May-June 1975). -– J.R.

February 28: Heathrow Airport, London. As soon as I step on the plane, TWA’s Muzak system has seen to it that I’m already back in America. Listening on the plastic earphones to blatant hypes for GOLD on two separate channels, the soundtrack of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT on another (where “fuck” is consistently bleeped out, but “fucker” and the sound of Jeff Bridges getting kicked in the face are dutifully preserved), it becomes evident once more that America starts and stops where its money reaches, and that “going there” means following the money trail. It’s over two years since my last visit – my longest sojourn abroad, during which I’ve had to miss the splendors of Watergate and depend on such things as Michael Arlen’s excellent TV column in The New Yorker for accounts of shifts in the national psyche — but TWA tells me in its own quiet way that nothing essential has changed.

On the plane I read Pauline Kael’s pre-release rave about Altman’s NASHVILLE, and and it certainly does its job: I can’t wait to see the movie. But why does she have to embarrass everyone by comparing Altman to Joyce? It’s just about as unhelpful (and unsubstantiated) as her earlier comparisons of, say, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS with Ulysees and THIEVES LIKE US with Faulkner, which confuse more than they clarify.… Read more »

Cinema Stylists, by John Belton

From the Summer 1984 Film Quarterly (Vol. XXXVII, No. 4). I can happily report that some copies of this book are still available on the Internet. — J.R.

CINEMA STYLISTS

By John Belton. Metuchan, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1983. $19.50.

From the outset, in his Introduction, John Belton makes the organizing stance of Cinema Stylists admirably clear. Revised auteurism — that is to say, non-vulgar and non-biographical auteurism, an auteurism brought more in line with the qualms of Barthes and Foucault (and subsequently Wollen) about authorship, and tempered with some of the notions about authorial presence in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction — is the dominant (if not exclusive) mode in this collection of over three dozen pieces, written over the past fourteen years. With the specters and examples of Robin Wood and Andrew Sarris hovering over his shoulders – his right and left consciences, as it were – Belton lacks the stylistic fluidity of either of his mentors, but has certain sound academic virtues which match and occasionally surpass the capacities of both.

A champion of the underdog film as well as the neglected figure, Belton can be seen going to bat in Cinema Stylists for Robert Mulligan, Edgar G.… Read more »

Lost In Yonkers

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.

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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)

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Pinky

From the Chicago Reader (January 9, 1990). — J.R.

Pinky

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)

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Simple Slimeballs [DANGEROUS LIAISONS]

From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1989). — J.R.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Christopher Hampton

With Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick, and Uma Thurman.

Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, first published more than 200 years ago, is one of the greatest novels ever written, but one would never guess it from the watchable but shallow comedy-melodrama of manners that Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears have extracted from it. They’ve stuck fairly close to the general outlines of the original plot, but they’ve jettisoned the form entirely, so that what remains is a distortion as well as a simplification of what is conceivably the best French novel of the 18th century.

Admittedly, Roger Vadim’s updated French film adaptation of 30 years ago, set partially at a contemporary ski resort, was no less reductive, and a third film version presently being prepared by Milos Forman, Valmont, is unlikely to avoid similar problems. Laclos’ 1782 masterpiece is an epistolary novel consisting of 175 letters written by at least ten separate characters, preceded by a “Publisher’s Note” and an “Editor’s Preface” and accompanied by several “editorial” footnotes throughout — an intricate dialectical construction that offers us several independent and often contradictory versions of practically everything that happens, and more than one interpretation of what all the various events mean.… Read more »

Nightmare as Funhouse Ride: Orson Welles’s THE TRIAL

Written for the StudioCanal Blu-Ray of The Trial in the Spring of 2012. — J.R.

‘What made it possible for me to make the picture,’ Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich of his most troubling film, ‘is that I’ve had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I’m in prison and I don’t know why –- going to be tried and I don’t know why. It’s very personal for me. A very personal expression, and it’s not all true that I’m off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it’s the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me. And just because it doesn’t speak in a Middle Western accent doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.’

To anchor these feelings in one part of Welles’ life, he was 15 when his alcoholic father died of heart and kidney failure, and Welles admitted to his friend and biographer Barbara Leaming that he always felt responsible for that death. He’d followed the advice of his surrogate parents, Roger and Hortense Hill, in refusing to see Richard Welles until he sobered up, and ‘that was the last I ever saw of him….I’veRead more »

Drôle de drame

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 »