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 (September 1, 1992). — J.R.
The underrated James Foley (After Dark, My Sweet) shows an excellent feeling for the driven and haunted jive rhythms of David Mamet, macho invective and all, in a superb 1992 delivery of his tour de force theater piece about desperate real estate salesmen, adapted for the screen by Mamet himself. Practically all the action occurs in an office and a Chinese restaurant across the street, and Foley’s mise en scene is so energetic and purposeful (he’s especially adept in using semicircular pans) that the ‘Scope format seems fully justified, even in a drama where lives are resurrected and destroyed according to the value of offscreen pieces of paper. The all-expert cast consists of Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, and Ed Harris (labor), Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey (management), and Jonathan Pryce (a customer); the wholly appropriate jazz score, with fine saxophone solos by Wayne Shorter, is by James Newton Howard. 100 min. (JR)
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 Chicago Reader‘s blog, the Bleader. — J.R.
Allied Advertising recently informed me that the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum is being previewed only to the daily press, not to weekly reviewers — which naturally raises the question of whether the company in question (Twentieth Century Fox) is deciding in advance that we weekly reviewers won’t like this release. Whether that’s the meaning of their strategy or not, it does show a kind of uncertainty that is much more general among the so-called majors. For instance, Warner Brothers has at this pointed shifted the Chicago opening date of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima several times, with the result that it’s bounced on and off my ten-best list according to whether it’s opening here in 2006 or 2007. New York and Los Angeles reviewers get to consider Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as part of the same package; Chicago reviewers don’t.
I differ from some of my local colleagues in refusing to consider 2007 releases for my 2006 list just because many of the film companies persist in treating Chicago as a cow town in contrast to New York and Los Angeles — both of which will be premiering Letters from Iwo Jima this year.
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
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1998). — J.R.
As in House of Games, David Mamet tries his hand at a Hitchcockian thriller, this time exploring the chase film rather than obsessive behavior. The effect is altogether lighter — a souffle that periodically threatens to float away. Campbell Scott plays the inventor of something called the Process (Mamet’s MacGuffin), a top-secret formula his company expects to clean up on. About the time that he’s befriended by a mysterious businessman (Steve Martin), he starts to worry that he might be cheated out of a share of the profits. The conspiracies come fast and thick, but because Mamet’s interest — male gamesmanship and competition — is pretty distant from Hitchcock’s usual turf, the spectator winds up feeling less invested in the plot and characters. But this 1998 feature is fun if you’re looking mainly for light entertainment. With Ben Gazzara, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Ricky Jay. PG, 112 min. (JR)
Two particular (and very different) moments that I described for Chris Fujiwara’s Defining Moments in Movies (2007). — J.R.
1987 / Full Metal Jacket –- The closeup of a dying Vietcong woman, a sniper.
U.S. (Warner Bros. Pictures). Director: Stanley Kubrick.
Cast: Matthew Modine, Ngoc Le.
Why It’s Key: It condenses the film’s power into an intense, mysterious moment.
I had the rare privilege of seeing Stanley Kubrick’s last war picture — an adaptation of Gustav Hasford novel’s The Short Timers, about his experiences during the war in Vietnam — with war specialist Samuel Fuller, shortly after the film came out. He didn’t much care for the picture, he said afterwards, because he didn’t much like films about training, and besides, this movie wasn’t antiwar enough for his taste; he thought it might even encourage some teenage boys to enlist in future wars. Of course, Fuller had extensive war experience and Kubrick had none, which might have also played some role in forming his bias.
But one thing in the film that he loved without qualification was the close-up of the wounded Vietcong sniper at the end while she’s begging for Joker (Matthew Modine) to finish her off —- above all, for the look of absolute hatred in her eyes. Read more