Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Pearls Of The Crown

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.

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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)

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Le Mouton Enragé

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 »

Process of Illumination [RADIUM CITY]

From the February 5, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

RADIUM CITY

Directed by Carole Langer

Thanks largely to the influence of auteur criticism, most of our aesthetically oriented writing about film since the 60s has been concerned with style. But one could argue that such an emphasis has tended to divert attention from what might be considered even more important — namely, form and content. “Whatever its sophistication,” Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero, “style always has something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention. . . . Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical . . . it rises up from the writer’s myth-laden depths and unfolds beyond his area of control.”

Perhaps only in an area like Hollywood moviemaking, where the artist seldom has final control over either the form or the content, can style be raised to the level of an ultimate principle. Yet because Hollywood continues to dominate our screens as well as the ways that we think about movies in general, the notion of style is also routinely applied to Bresson, Godard, Kubrick, and Tarkovsky, when surely form and content, not style, is what their best films are about.… Read more »

Manifesto

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

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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)

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Tati’s Influence on David Lynch

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 »

William Styron

 

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 »

Lemming

  From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 2006). –J. R.

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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.

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Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!

 

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This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression-era musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman, with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception owes something to Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights, but the editing and mise en scene are genuinely inspired and inventive. (The parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” must be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite, and Richard Day’s art deco sets are striking. 82 min. 2019 postscript: According to the late Pierre Rissient, much of this film’s brilliance can be credited to the preproduction work on it done by Harry d’Arrast. (JR)

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Slacker

For the Chicago Reader (August 23, 1991). Fortunately, I’ve been to Austin quite a few times since I wrote this review. — J.R.

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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 »

In The Cut

From the Chicago Reader (October 31, 2003). — J.R.

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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)

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Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1997). — J.R.

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After 30 years of cryogenic preservation, the title hero (a spin-off of James Bond and his clones) and his archenemy Dr. Evil — both played by writer and coproducer Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) — emerge in the present to match wits all over again. What’s really fun about this silly but spirited comedy isn’t just the ribbing of swinging London fashion and social attitudes but the use of the compulsive zooms and split-screen mosaics of commercial movies of the 60s (some of the funniest gags derive from camera placement). There’s a bit of fudging when it comes to the romantic interest: sidekick Elizabeth Hurley initially blanches at Austin Powers’s advances but succumbs as soon as he treats her to a night on the town in Las Vegas, complete with champagne and Burt Bacharach. But 60s (and 50s) icons like Robert Wagner and Michael York (playing someone called Basil Exposition) make this exercise in historical relativity even funnier. Jay Roach directed with just the right amount of period tackiness. With Mimi Rogers, Seth Green, and Fabiana Udenio (as Alotta Fagina). (JR)

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On Andrea Gronvall

Here’s the substance of two emails I recently sent to an obit writer at the Tribune:

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Once Upon a Time, Cinema

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

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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)

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Low Budget, Real Life [MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND]

From the Chicago Reader (September 2, 1994). — J.R.

** MY LIFE’S IN TURNAROUND

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Eric Schaeffer and Donal Lardner Ward

With Schaeffer, Ward, Lisa Gerstein, Dana Wheeler Nicholson, Debra Clein, Sheila Jaffe, John Sayles, Martha Plimpton, Phoebe Cates, and Casey Siemaszko.

As a member of the New York film festival’s selection committee, I’ve seen or sampled close to 150 films (shorts and features) this summer that haven’t yet opened in the United States, about a quarter of them American. And I’ve come to a few rough conclusions about the differences between new American movies and those recently made elsewhere, and had a few thoughts about trends in American studio and independent pictures. All of them are fairly depressing.

One major difference between foreign and American fiction features stands out: those made in other countries tend to be about how people live today, and those made here tend to be anything but. The few American movies that spring to mind as exceptions are already being regarded within the business as uncommercial — difficult, marginal works earmarked for “special” audiences.

This state of affairs is partly the result of new definitions of “universality” developed by the studios over the past several years, which generally suppose that the ideal movie viewer has the taste and sensibility of a ten-year-old boy: think of the well-received Speed, Forrest Gump, and True Lies, for instance, none of which betrays a view of the adult world any more developed than those in The Lion King and The Mask.… Read more »

The Actor

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

THE ACTOR by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

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 »