From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.
Henry II dies in a quizzical jump cut, Arletty’s voice is run backward to suggest the speech of an Abyssinian snake princess, and writer-director Sacha Guitry plays several parts (including Francis I, Napoleon III, and himself telling the film’s story to his wife). It’s often been said that you have to know French to fully appreciate Guitry’s cleverness and genius. But even if only those who speak French will catch a pun capping Jacqueline Delubac’s attempt to resist Raimu’s advances by speaking exclusively in adverbs, the sheer personality and energy of this 1937 film transcends linguistic barriers. A tale about the fate of seven perfect pearls, four of them in the English crown, it starts in the 16th century and proceeds by leaps and bounds into the 20th, periodically shifting to English or Italian to give its wit and formal play more international cachet. If you’ve never encountered Guitry, this is a plausible place to start. The all-star cast also includes Marcel Dalio, Claude Dauphin, and Jean-Louis Barrault. In English and subtitled French and Italian. 100 min. (JR)
From Oui (August 1974). — J.R.
Le Mouton Enragé. Before the credits of Le Mouton Enragé come on, we see Jean-Louis Trintignant as Nicolas, an unassuming bank clerk who is so sheepish that he accepts a sandwich he hasn’t ordered in a café and winds up paying for a seat in a park where he doesn’t want to sit. Then he sees a pretty girl (Jane Birkin) standing alone by the Seine. A flush of courage overtakes him, he places a hand on her arm and says, “The person you’re waiting for doesn’t exist.” “Probably not,” she agrees, and voilà! The lamb is already on his way to becoming a lion. Carefully advised and tutured by his best friend (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Nicolas proceeds to make his way in the world; before the final reel, he has already become the editor of a jazzy tabloid and has bedded practically every attractive woman in the cast, including Birkin, Romy Schneider, Florinda Bolkan, and Estella Blain. The director of this graceful, inconsequential lark is Michel Deville, something of a specialist in neoclassy, softcore wish fulfillment — particularly harem fantasies where the ladies keep begging for more. (His Benjamin, a fleshy 18th century romp of a few years back, is a prime example.) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.
Dusan Makavejev’s 1988 comedy, his first film to be shot in his native Yugoslavia in 18 years, is easily his most pleasurable work since WR: Mysteries of the Organism, albeit without the intellectual ambitions of that or any of his earlier Yugoslav works. The major premise here is that eastern Europe of the 20s is not something we know from history so much as from Hollywood — specifically the imaginary countries of Lubitsch and Million Dollar Legs during the 30s. The influence of Lubitsch (who once pointedly remarked that he preferred Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France) is apparent from the opening intertitle, and if the plot of Manifesto remains pretty inconsequential — a network of sexual and political intrigues involving murders, numerous sexual liaisons, an insane asylum, assassination attempts, and garden parties that never leads to any satisfactory conclusion — the sexiness, wit, lush rural settings, and style keep it bubbling throughout. Camilla Soeberg (Twist and Shout) is especially good as a wealthy and promiscuous political schemer; others in the cast include Eric Stoltz, Alfred Molina, Simon Callow, and Lindsay Duncan. (JR)
I’m grateful to have Kristin Thompson’s detailed and useful report on the Jacques Tati exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française, which closes on August 2nd and which I won’t be able to attend myself. But there’s one very small point in her account with which I disagree. I’m not referring to her spelling of Playtime as Play Time — a long-standing position of hers, based (I believe) on the styling of the film’s ads and opening title credit — because it’s possible that she’s been right about this while I and virtually everyone else have been wrong. (For me, the cinching argument either way would be how Tati spelled the title himself. I’m sorry that I never thought to ask him, during the brief period in 1973 when I worked for him.)
No, my disagreement has to do with the influence exerted by Tati on David Lynch, which Kristin deals with only parenthetically by noting that Lynch “might conceivably be said to reflect a Tatian influence only in The Straight Story.” I’m not disputing whether or not The Straight Story reflects Tati’s influence; as nearly as I can recall, this hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the film, and she might well be correct. Read more
DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS by William Styron (New York: Vintage Books), 1990, 84 pp.
HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS by William Styron (New York: Random House), 2008, 162 pp.
Two late autobiographical books by a writer I’ve always liked —- the first somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I came to it with the wrong expectations, the second a pleasurable surprise.
I guess what I was hoping to encounter in DARKNESS VISIBLE, Styron’s brief and somewhat sketchy account of his own excruciating bouts with depression in the 1980s, was some clarification or extension of what I found so powerful about his treatment of bipolar behavior in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979) -– specifically the depiction of Nathan, which seemed to derive from some deep personal understanding of this condition. But Styron points out early on that his own malady was “unipolar,” not the same thing at all. Still, I admire the scrupulous way he avoids leaping to too many conclusions about a condition that he’s still far from fully understanding.
The late essays collected in HAVANAS IN CAMELOT deal with such topics as a few amicable encounters with John F. Kennedy (the title essay), an apparent contraction of syphilis during his youth (as a fledgling Marine at a naval hospital in South Carolina), his friendships with fellow novelists (Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern), some late prostate trouble, and walks with his dog in his early 80s. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 2006). –J. R.
Brilliantly conceived and competently executed, this disturbing psychological thriller by German-born French filmmaker Dominik Moll (With a Friend Like Harry) has been compared to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, in part because of its uncanny two-part construction. But it also suggests an original spin on Eyes Wide Shut in the unspoken understandings of its married couple (Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and its ambiguous mix of reality and fantasy. Andre Dussollier and Charlotte Rampling play another couple who arrive for a dinner party, and the unpredictable transactions among the four kept me engrossed and curious throughout. In French with subtitles. 129 min. Music Box.
For the Chicago Reader (August 23, 1991). Fortunately, I’ve been to Austin quite a few times since I wrote this review. — J.R.
Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable first feature takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (all of it scripted by Linklater, though it often seems improvised). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation on The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly localized sense of community. I’ve never been to Austin, but this movie certainly makes me want to pay a visit (1990). Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.
One can easily pick apart this Jane Campion adaptation of a thriller by Susanna Moore: it isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and certain details — like the heroine assigning Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to her inner-city high school students — come across as just plain silly. But I still consider this the best (which also means the sexiest) Campion feature since The Piano, featuring Meg Ryan’s finest performance to date and an impressive one by Mark Ruffalo. Scripted by Moore and Campion, it takes on the unfashionable question of what sex means for a single woman drifting into middle age, and what it says on the subject veers from the obvious to the novel. Campion is better with moods than with plot, and her capable handling of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and an uncredited Kevin Bacon) ameliorates the hyperbolic characters they’re asked to play. R, 118 min. (JR)
Here’s the substance of two emails I recently sent to an obit writer at the Tribune:
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1993). — J.R.
An entertaining if somewhat uneven departure by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this 1992 film can be regarded in part as a kind of peace offering to the Iranian government after the banning of his two previous features. A fantasy about the birth of Iranian cinema, full of whimsical special effects and wacky magical-realism conceits, it’s centered on an early cinematographer (Mehdi Hashemi) — modeled loosely and rather awkwardly on Chaplin’s tramp figure — who introduces movies to the Persian court, gradually winning over the shah (Ezatollah Entezami) after the ruler falls for an actress (Fatemeh Motamed Aria, literally dropping from the screen into the palace). Quirkily inventive and unpredictable, the film concludes with a sentimental anthology of clips celebrating the history of Iranian cinema that calls to mind Oscar night; before this, much more interesting use is made of a silent film identified by Makhmalbaf as the first Iranian movie, Ebrahim Khan’s Hajagha, the Film Actor. In Farsi with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.
This 1993 film by the eclectic and talented Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddler, Marriage of the Blessed) is a contemporary semitragic farce about a burly film actor who wants to act only in art films but is forced by his family’s economic demands to do a string of trashy commercial movies. His tormented wife, infertile and obsessed with having a baby, insists that her husband marry and impregnate a second wife, a deaf-mute Gypsy, to provide them with a child. What keeps this picture frenetic, apart from the hysterical action and satirical treatment of the Iranian media, is the couple’s surreal, high-tech home and Makhmalbaf’s hyperbolic, eccentric mise en scene, which fit together hand and glove (as they were undoubtedly designed to do). The three lead actors — Akbar Abdi (playing some version of himself), Fatemeh Motamed Aria, and Mahaya Petrossian — were all in Once Upon a Time, Cinema, Makhmalbaf’s previous feature; there appear to be some cross-references (such as the hero’s Chaplin worship), but here the tone is more caustic, the inventiveness more pointed. The meanings of both films are less than entirely clear, but my hunch is that each is a comic allegory about the rift between traditional and contemporary Iran, in which class differences and cultural differences are equally pertinent. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 492). — J.R.
Short and Suite
Canada, 1959 Directors: Norman McLaren, Evelyn Lambert
Dist—BFI. p.c–National Film Board of Canada. visuals–Norman
McLaren, Evelyn Lambert. In color. sp. effects–Arnold Schieman.
m–Eldon Rathburn. performed by–The Buff Estes Group. 450 ft.
5 mins. (35 and 16mm.).
A characteristically bright, giggly and pithy animated short in
the McLaren manner, Short and Suite would probably be better still
if it had more inspired music to work with. Begone Dull Care (1948-
49), thanks to the ebullience and effervescence of Oscar Peterson’s
piano, was closer to a duel than a gloss on a ‘text’; this more modest
foray into synchronized, syncopated doodling plays with and against
a less improvised, less distinctive form of jazz, which is certainly
enhanced and highlighted by the visuals, but is not exactly transcended
by them. Beginning with pink and blue splotches to illustrate the bass
notes, and then clean white lines to match those played by the piano,
the design resolves itself into shifting parallel lines as the clarinet
comes in. Sometimes the lines wiggle or pulsate in strict
accordance with the music (one line reflecting the melody, the
other the rhythm), sometimes they curl into other shapes that
suggest the equivalent of a separate melodic line. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1990). — J.R.
Although there are times when one feels that the filmmakers have bitten off a little more than they can chew, this is a bold, watchable adaptation (by director James Foley and coproducer Robert Redlin) of a noirish thriller by Jim Thompson that comes surprisingly close to capturing the grisly, hard-boiled, and unstable world of that author — thanks in part to a sharp feeling for sensual detail that includes everything from wet, squishy kisses to a scummy unused swimming pool. (Cinematographer Mark Plummer works wonders with light and scenery in striking ‘Scope compositions.) Jason Patric, calling to mind a slightly heavier James Dean at a low flame, stars as a former boxer who has escaped from an insane asylum; whether he’s actually nuts or merely on the edge is one of the central ambiguities that keep the plot moving, and the fact that he narrates the story off-screen in classic noir fashion only complicates one’s uncertainty. He falls in with a salty, alcoholic English widow (Rachel Ward) and a small-time con man and ex-cop (Bruce Dern) in southern California who are plotting to kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family, and paranoia and other complications start to unravel the trio’s uneasy rapport. Read more
It appears that I hated Basic Instinct when it came out in 1992 (this review appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 3), before I became something of a diehard Paul Verhoeven fan, and now I like the movie a lot. Or maybe I was a fan back then, at least in a back-handed sort of way, and wouldn’t or couldn’t admit this to myself. I offer the following as evidence of my former position, whatever it might have been.– J.R.
No stars (Worthless)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Joe Eszterhas
With Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle, and Dorothy Malone.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
What’s really news about Basic Instinct isn’t that it’s number one at the box office; after all, that happens to some movie every week. Nor is it that you get to see Sharon Stone’s (quite ordinary looking) twat for a few seconds when she uncrosses her legs. Even the bisexual and lesbian psycho serial killers, which gay groups are protesting, aren’t news.
No, the real news about Basic Instinct is that Joe Eszterhas got $3 million for the script. This is clearly a script that’s going to be studied and emulated for some time to come. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1999). — J.R.
An uncredited Jean-Luc Godard produced this 1997 third feature by the singular American independent Rob Tregenza (Talking to Strangers, The Arc), and along with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, Godard is certainly a presiding guru over this powerful if enigmatic view of life in and around a psychiatric hospital somewhere in rural, snowbound America. Shot by Tregenza himself (one of the best cinematographers on the planet) in black-and-white 35-millimeter ‘Scope — mainly in extremely long, choreographed takes that transpire with a minimum of dialogue but with an extremely inventive and original Dolby sound track — the film offers not so much a plot in the usual sense as a series of interlocking characters and events governed, like the film’s title, by polarities: sound and image, interior and exterior, sanity and madness, freedom and institutional captivity, society and isolation. According to clues planted in the clothes and decor (especially the cars), the action begins around 1945 and ends in the present or near future, but to confuse matters further the characters and their behavior remain unaging constants. Tregenza’s background in existential philosophy serves him well: every shot comprises an event, and most of them were shot only once, in a single take (as in Talking to Strangers), allowing change and contingency to shape the material. Read more