From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1988). Having just seen the gorgeous new restoration of this film a little over three decades later, it looks even better now, although my demurrals remain the same. — J.R.
WINGS OF DESIRE
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Wenders and Peter Handke
With Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk.
They all have weary mouths,
bright souls without a seam,
And a yearning (as for sin)
often haunts their dream.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Angels”
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels who hover over, swoop across, and cruise through contemporary Berlin in Wim Wenders’s new feature, eavesdropping on the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants like readers browsing through the books in a library. They are not angels in the conventional sense of blessed or fallen souls; rather they are more or less the angels of Rilke’s poetry — the imaginary beings that dominate his first two Duino Elegies and that, according to Rilke, have more to do with “the angelic figures of Islam” than they do with Christianity.
All of which may make Wings of Desire seem esoteric and forbidding to moviegoers who, like me, have only a glancing acquaintance with Rilke, speak no German, and have never before heard of “the angelic figures of Islam.”… 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.
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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)
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This was done for Not Coming to a Theater Near You (notcoming.com) in April 2013, and the questions were put by Rumsey Taylor. — J.R.
• We’re approaching the acid Western as if it could satisfy a chapter in your book, Midnight Movies. At the time of its writing, how might you and Hoberman have denominated the films that have retroactively become known as acid Westerns (The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace, The Last Movie, El Topo, et al.)?
I can’t speak for Jim Hoberman. As nearly as I can remember, I simply coined the phrase in order to group together several countercultural westerns — which included, by the way, some of the novels of Rudy Wurlitzer as well as some movies.
• The first instance I’ve found of the term “acid Western” occurs in Pauline Kael’s review of El Topo in 1971, and she employs it in derogatory fashion, alluding to the pothead audience that extolled the film — an audience she admittedly did not belong to. Being that your use of the term is more academic, do you think that the acid Western was meant to be viewed under the influence of hallucinogenic substances?
Maybe Kael used the term before I did and I unconsciously borrowed it.
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1987). — J.R.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tom Stoppard
With Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers.
THE LAST EMPEROR
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe
With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
“The first major Hollywood studio production ever to shoot in the People’s Republic of China” and “the first Western production to be made about modern China with the full cooperation of the Chinese government” are the two blockbusters of the season, and the dizzying gulf that stretches between them has a lot to do with the conceptual ranges of the two filmmakers who stand behind them. While the two movies need to be considered separately before they can be meaningfully juxtaposed, one preliminary generalization seems in order: while both films attack difficult subjects, Bernardo Bertolucci’s spectacular is predicated on a number of self-imposed limitations — emotional, dramatic, visual, linguistic, historical, and (more broadly) conceptual; Steven Spielberg’s, on the other hand, sprawls in the same half-dozen areas.
Empire of the Sun is based on an autobiographical novel by J.G.… 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)
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From the Chicago Reader (September 19, 1997). — J.R.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by William Gazecki
Written by Gazecki and Dan Gifford
Narrated by Gifford.
At some point in the middle of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino at his best) — a small-time operator and bisexual who’s taken over a bank to finance his male lover’s sex-change operation — has to step outside to bargain with the police. When it becomes clear that the crowd of bystanders and media that has gathered is more sympathetic to him than to the armed police, he calls out “Attica!” as a gesture of solidarity with the crowd and against the forces of law and order, which wins him more acclamation.
It’s a moment I recalled while thinking about the veiled allusion to the conflagration at Waco made by Timothy McVeigh on the day he was sentenced. This wasn’t because McVeigh, who has none of Wortzik’s charisma, qualifies as any sort of populist hero. It was because the fact that there can be no equivalence between the Waco disaster and the Oklahoma City bombing was apparently lost on McVeigh, just as the fact that there could be no equivalence between the slaughter of Attica prisoners in 1971 and robbing a bank was apparently lost on Wortzik — not to mention the crowd he was addressing.… Read more »
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 »
Written for Criterion’s DVD release of F for Fake in 2005. — J.R.
There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antégor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”
I met him at La Méditerranée — the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing — and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader‘s blog, the Bleader. — J.R.
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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 29, 1991). — J.R.
WHITE DOG **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson
With Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody, and Marshall Thompson.
The best American movie released so far this year, made by the greatest living American filmmaker, was actually made ten years ago, and so far its venues have been restricted to single theaters in New York and Chicago; but late is a lot better than never, and two cities are certainly better than none. Why it’s taken a decade for Samuel Fuller’s White Dog to reach us is not an easy question to answer; it was shown widely in Europe in the early 80s and well-received critically. For the past few years it has turned up sporadically on cable, principally the Lifetime channel, but it has never come out here on video. White Dog started out as an article by Romain Gary published in Life magazine, and was later expanded into a book. The accounts I’ve read describe the book as autobiographical, mainly about the author’s relationship with Jean Seberg. Gary and Seberg were living in Los Angeles when they found a “white” dog who had been trained to attack blacks; they tried without success to have the dog retrained, and eventually had to kill it.… 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)
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From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 2001). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Joe Roth
Written by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan
With Julia Roberts, Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Walken.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Frank Oz
Written by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith, and Daniel E. Taylor
With Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, Marlon Brando, and Gary Farmer.
“Talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices,” says seasoned safecracker and jazz-club manager Robert De Niro in The Score, as he sets up “one last score” before he quits the game for good. It’s the only sensible thing anyone says in either this movie or America’s Sweethearts, a clunky ribbing of the movie industry, and whoever was making the big choices about these pictures should have taken it as advice. Both appear to be agents’ packages first and movies second, so that even though they’re trying hard to recapture the feel of Hollywood standbys — the heist thriller and the satiric screwball comedy — they seem to proceed from the premise that all that’s required is to throw the right number of “talented” elements in the same direction.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.
Small Time Crooks
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch.
Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen’s 29th feature in 31 years. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that all the major developments in his work to date took place during the period around Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977), when he transformed himself from a gagman with a clunky mise en scene into a fairly graceful filmmaker, and the period around Husbands and Wives (1992), when he bravely discarded grace and went on a brief adventure. It led to the relaxed candor of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and the sour gallows humor of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), before collapsing into the banality and facility of Mighty Aphrodite (1995), with its Whore With a Heart of Gold.
September (1987) was an embarrassment, and other low points, the moments when Allen’s energy and invention flagged the most, include A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998). Small Time Crooks never attains the diffidence of the last three, but at times it comes awfully close.… Read more »