From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.— J.R.
The Day I Became a Woman
Directed by Marzieh Meshkini
Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.
“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.
The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another. Read more
From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein
Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi
With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.
1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?
Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions. Read more
From the March 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Robert Redford’s second feature as director (after Ordinary People) describes the elaborate consequences when a Chicano handyman in New Mexico (Chick Vennera) illegally irrigates his parched bean field with water earmarked for a major development. Fairly choked with good intentions, whimsy, touches of fantasy, and cardboard liberal stereotypes, this 1988 release does for Mexicans what Louis Malle did for Jews or Walt Disney did for mice — slowly, and at great length. The results are a bit like a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism by Mortimer Snerd, with pretty landscapes. John Nichols adapted his own novel, assisted by David Ward; with Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, James Gammon, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)
From the April 1, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An adventurous and sometimes sexy (if only fitfully successful) 1996 adaptation of Louise Kaplan’s celebrated nonfiction book, directed by Susan Streitfeld from a script she wrote with Julie Hebert. Streitfeld focuses on a successful single prosecutor (British actress Tilda Swinton, displaying an impeccable American accent) as she waits to discover whether she’s been appointed as a judge, her kleptomaniac-scholar sister (Amy Madigan), the prosecutor’s boyfriend, a lesbian psychotherapist she has a fling with, and other people in her orbit. Oscillating between everyday events in her life and her dreams and fantasies, the film is much more successful with the former than with the latter, which often get heavy-handed and obscure. But the freshness of Streitfeld’s approach toward gender anxiety and social conditioning fascinates even when the overall clarity diminishes. Not for everyone, but those who like it will probably like it a lot. With Karen Sillas, Clancy Brown, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, and Dale Shuger. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1996). — J.R.
The White Balloon
Directed by Jafar Panahi
Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi, and Parviz Shahbazi
With Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Anna Bourkowska, Aliasghar Samadi, Mohammad Shahani, and Mohammad Bahktiari.
In Iran the first day of spring is New Year’s Day, the celebration of which starts at a different time of day every year, and among the objects used in the celebration is a goldfish, which symbolizes life. The plot of Jafar Panahi’s extraordinary first feature, The White Balloon (opening this week at the Music Box), involves the adventures of Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), a seven-year-old girl who has her heart set on buying a new goldfish for the celebration, insisting that the ones her family already has are “too skinny.”
Only 85 minutes long, the film unfolds in real time and almost exclusively in exteriors along a few blocks of Tehran the morning of the New Year. The film opens in a market, where Razieh’s mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) is shopping; she collects Razieh, who’s carrying a blue balloon, and they walk home together. Nearly all of the film’s other major characters — and even a couple of minor ones — are fleetingly glimpsed during this prelude, though we don’t recognize any of them yet. Read more
This is an expanded version of an article published originally (on October 8, 1993) in the Chicago Reader; the Australian DVD label Madman commissioned this longer piece in the summer of 2009. — J.R.
Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a jazz musician from the north fleeing from a southern lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?
As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it might conceivably transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might enhance the freshness of his treatment -—one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce. Read more
From the May 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Gus Van Sant adapts Tom Robbins’s comic, countercultural novel of the 70s by boiling away half of the subplots, eliminating the interpolated essays, and upgrading the lesbian romance, and while the results are both cheerful and occasionally inventive, they can’t hold a candle to his previous features (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho); too many jokey asides and cameos — not to mention an overdose of plot — keep getting in the way. Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) puts her abnormally large thumbs to use in hitchhiking and winds up at a ranch in Oregon among a band of renegade cowgirls. With John Hurt, Angie Dickinson, Pat Morita, Lorraine Bracco, and Rain Phoenix. (JR)
THE RACK, written by Stewart Sterm and Rod Serling, directed by Arnold Laven, with Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman (1956, 100 min.)
TIME LIMIT, written by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, directed by Karl Malden, with Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, June Lockhart, Rip Torn, Martin Balsam, Carl Benton Reid, and James Douglas (1957, 96 min.)
I’ve recently reseen these two taut black and white 50s melodramas about the impending courtmartials of American POWs in North Korea who broke under torture, including brainwashing, and became traitors–characters played respectively by Paul Newman and Richard Basehart, and interrogated by Wendell Corey and Edmond O’Brien in the first film, Richard Widmark in the second. Indeed, there are so many close similarities and parallels between these films and their existential issues that I’ve often mixed them up in my memory, although it’s now clear after reseeing them that Time Limit, the only film ever directed by Karl Malden, is by far the better of the two. The Rack is adapted by Stewart Stern from a 1955 TV drama by Rod Serling that aired on the United States Steel Hour; Time Limit is adapted by Henry Denkler from a 1956 play that he coauthored with Ralph Berkey. Read more
From the February 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Peter Bogdanovich’s bright 1972 screwball comedy, patterned after Bringing Up Baby and decked out with lots of references to silent slapstick, plants dim musicologist Ryan O’Neal and freewheeling kook Barbra Streisand in San Francisco and then piles on the comic complications, with assistance from Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, and Kenneth Mars. Much of the slapstick is deftly executed, but there is one unfortunate undertone — ordinary, unassuming workers tend to be the fall guys more often than the pompous rich (a factor that distinguishes this comedy from most of Bogdanovich’s classic sources), although O’Neal’s character, who stays at the Hilton, certainly has his share of pratfalls. Streisand sings a fabulous version of “You’re the Top” behind the credits, and the busy script by Buck Henry, Robert Benton, and David Newman keeps things moving, but the spirit of pastiche keeps this romp from truly rivaling its sources. G, 94 min. (JR)
From the July 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
More mud pies and occasional musical numbers from Mel Brooks in his parodic Blazing Saddles mode (has he any other?) — predictably slapdash but indefatigably good-natured and sometimes funny to boot. Completely disregarding the PC guidelines of left and right alike, this medieval romp features gags about Jews, blacks, gays, blind people, and the clergy, among others, but none of it seems mean spirited. Dom DeLuise does a very funny impersonation of Brando impersonating Don Corleone; with Cary Elwes, Amy Yasbeck, Isaac Hayes, Roger Rees, Tracey Ullman, and Brooks himself as a rabbi. Evan Chandler and J. David Shapiro collaborated with Brooks on the script. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.
Originally known in French as Jacquot de Nantes, this is a loving and lovely reenactment of the wonderful French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s childhood in Nantes, made by his wife Agnes Varda while Demy was dying of AIDS. Brief glimpses of Demy’s movies and Demy himself are craftily woven in to show us how his mainly happy childhood and his early efforts as a filmmaker and animator tended to nourish all his subsequent work. He brought an enchanted fairy-tale sensibility to such features as Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Donkey Skin, and Varda does a fine job of showing the roots of this work without succumbing to easy sentimentality. Recommended. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.
From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.
The least known, though far from least interesting, of producer Val Lewton’s exemplary, poetic B-films, this was withdrawn from circulation for nearly half a century due to an unjust plagiarism suit that Lewton had the misfortune to lose. Like many of Lewton’s best efforts (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man), this is a taut thriller promising fantasy in its title but offering a dark look at human psychology that becomes even more disturbing through what’s left to the viewer’s imagination. The plot concerns a young third mate (Russell Wade) on a cargo ship who’s befriended by a lonely captain (Richard Dix), whom he gradually discovers is a disturbed tyrant with little of the self-confidence he initially shows — a cracked father figure whose crew is mysteriously loyal in spite of his weaknesses. Like Lewton’s other early pictures, it’s carefully scripted (by Donald Henderson Clarke), efficiently directed (by Mark Robson), and evocatively shot (by Nicholas Musuraca). This 1943 “second feature” boasts a large and well-defined cast of characters and a very involved plot, though it lasts only about 70 minutes — there’s scarcely a wasted motion, a bracing object lesson to nearly all feature makers today. Read more