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.
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992). — J.R.
Al Pacino’s winning entry in the disability Oscar sweepstakes, with plenty of reminders of Dead Poets Society to take up the slack once it runs out of ways of emulating Rain Man. Among the able hands in this scurrilous, overlong enterprise are screenwriter Bo Goldman, producer-director Martin Brest, and costar Chris O’Donnell; the plot, a very loose Americanized remake of a 1975 Dino Risi comedy, transpires over a Thanksgiving weekend, when a scholarship student (O’Donnell) at an expensive New England prep school, wrestling with an anguished crise de conscience (he’s being pressured to inform on classmates), is hired to take care of a blind retired lieutenant colonel (Pacino), who drags him along to Manhattan on a wild, expensive weekend. An irascible bully who proves to have a heart of gold, Pacino’s character seems manufactured by a computer programmed with box-office grosses, and it’s disheartening to find a movie that professes to take a stand on behalf of personal integrity ripping off Chaplin’s theme song from City Lights without credit to generate some of its pathos. Given the talent on board, there’s an undeniable flair and effectiveness in certain scenes (such as Pacino dancing the tango with a stranger in a posh restaurant), but the meretricious calculation finally sticks in one’s throat.… Read more »
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)
This phone interview (see link below) with Douglas Storm in Bloomington, Indiana aired yesterday. Given all the Buddy Rich extracts, I’m sorry that there wasn’t time to discuss Welles’ own jazz taste (which was oriented more towards Dixieland, at least during the 40s). The clips from the film that are heard, which may be hard to follow in spots, testify to how much the art of Welles as a filmmaker is based on his editing, which obviously can’t be perceived in sound bites. [11/28/18]
One of the delightful things about Rose Troche’s stylish, low-budget, filmed-in-Chicago black-and-white lesbian comedy is that its characters all register as real people, even when bits of the dialogue are stiff or some of the lip sync is off; this isn’t a movie about lesbians, it’s a movie about these lesbians, and we’re likely to think of them afterward as if they were people we knew. As in the better American underground movies of the 60s, which this sometimes resembles, the youthfulness and the footloose free spirit — evident in everything from the performances and Ann T. Rossetti’s shooting style to Brendan Dolan and Jennifer Sharpe’s jazz score and the breezy rhythmic stretches bridging narrative sequences — keep things bouncing along like a clear spring day. (And though the characters themselves vary in age, there’s a clear note of shared adolescent braggadocio in the way that sex and romance here become real only after they’re talked about and described.) Written as well as produced by Troche in collaboration with Guinevere Turner, the younger of the two romantic leads (the other is V.S. Brodie), this movie dives into fantasy and stylized internal monologues with the same aplomb it brings to the buildup to a hot date.… Read more »
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 (January 29, 1999). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Steven Antin
With Sharon Stone, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Starr, Bonnie Bedelia, and George C. Scott.
I don’t much relish remakes, especially of movies I like — I’ve avoided seeing the new Payback, a retooling of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) — but the idea of Sidney Lumet remaking John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980) with Sharon Stone seemed to offer possibilities. After all, Cassavetes wrote the script for MGM thinking someone else would direct it; he wound up directing it himself for Columbia only because his wife, Gena Rowlands, was the star and the studio asked him to. “Look, I’m not very bright,” he insisted in an interview. “I wrote a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters. And I don’t even know any gangsters. Gloria has a wonderful actress and a very nice kid [John Adames] who’s neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic. He’s just a kid. He reminds me of me — constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment.” Later he added that when he began shooting Gloria, “I was bored because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began….All… Read more »
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 »
In this strictly routine second sequel to Poltergeist, directed by Gary Sherman from a script by Sherman and Brian Taggert, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is now happily living in Chicago with her uncle Bruce (Tom Skerritt), aunt Pat (Nancy Allen), and cousin Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle). But during a session at school with a therapist (Richard Fire) something nasty starts to happen when she looks in a mirror. Most of the action is confined to a single brand-new skyscraper, and the moves are both standard and predictable: periodic jolts from the other world that seem almost arbitrarily spliced into the action, setting up the rational-minded therapist as the major fall guy, and never paying much mind to plot or coherence, meanwhile cribbing from everything in sight (The Exorcist, The Shining, the first two Poltergeists). (JR)
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 (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 »
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 FilmComment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, HeartofDarkness, 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 »
Adapted from “Problemes d’accès: Sur les traces de quelque ﬁlms et cinéastes ‘de festival,’” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Traﬁc no. 30, été 1999. — J.R.
“Festival ﬁlm”: a mainly pejorative term in the ﬁlm business, especially in North America. It generally refers to a ﬁlm destined to be seen by professionals, specialists, or cultists but not by the general public because some of these professionals decide it won’t or can’t be sufﬁciently proﬁtable to warrant distribution. Whether these professionals are distributors, exhibitors, programmers, publicists, or critics is a secondary issue, particularly because these functions are increasingly viewed today as overlapping, and sometimes even as interchangeable.
The two types of critic one sees at festivals are those (the majority) who want to see the ﬁlms that will soon be distributed in their own territories, and those who want to see the ﬁlms that they’ll otherwise never get to see — or in some cases ﬁlms that may not arrive in their territories for a few years. The ﬁrst group is apt to be guided in their choices of what to see by distributors, or else by calculated guesses of what distributors will buy. The second group, if it hopes to have any inﬂuence, will ultimately seek to persuade potential distributors as well as ordinary spectators, but whether it functions in this way or not, its spirit is generally guided by cinephilia more than by business interests.… Read more »