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)
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From the March 6, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
I seem to be in a distinct minority in regarding Brian De Palma as a tacky blowhard and unimaginative plagiarist — Pauline Kael places him above Alfred Hitchcock, who she apparently feels lacked the proper trashy exuberance, and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema recently concluded that Carlito’s Way was the greatest film of the 90s. But if I had to select a recent De Palma movie that validated my own bias, I’d opt for this ludicrous compost of derivative SF and insincere soap opera, which begins with a spaceship pilfered from 2001, ends with a New Age epiphany out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and features a lot of bad acting and celestial choirs in between. Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, and Lowell Cannon are credited with the clumsy script, and the teary-eyed actors include Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, and Jerry O’Connell. There are a few pretty good design effects en route, but not enough to compensate for all the embarrassments. 120 min. (JR)
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This was written in early 2003 at the invitation of Nicole Brenez for a French collection that she edited, La Vie nouvelle/nouvelle vision: à propos d’un film de Philippe Grandrieux (Éditions Léo Scheer, 2005), and she uses the French translation of it by Aïcha Bahcelioglu to lead off the book; the volume also includes a DVD of the film. — J.R.
I’ve witnessed and partly experienced two massive surges of interest in avant-garde cinema during my lifetime. The first, centered on North American films during the 1960s, was spearheaded by Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney in New York; the second, centered on films in both Europe and North America around the turn of the century, has been masterminded as well as celebrated by, among others, Simon Field at the Rotterdam Film Festival and Nicole Brenez at the Cinémathèque Française.
I was slow in appreciating the first of these movements, in part because it tended to draw up battle lines between believers and atheists and was not very hospitable towards agnostics; for all that it accomplished, it was somewhat alienating to anti-institutional types such as Jack Smith and more pluralistic cinéphiles such as myself, who had trouble understanding why Marcel Hanoun was the only French avant-garde figure since the 20s admitted into Anthology Film Archives, which also managed to exclude such figures as Godard, Resnais, Rivette, and Straub-Huillet —- not to mention Lang and Mizoguchi — from its pantheon.… Read more »
From the June 2, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere — and, more subtly, the women — of Africa like few filmmakers before her.… Read more »
From the November 29, 1990 Chicago Reader, where some wag had the bright idea of calling this piece “The Stinging Nun”. — J.R.
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Jean Gruault and Rivette
With Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver, Micheline Presle, Christianne Lenier, Jean Martin, and Francisco Rabal.
While it’s certainly regrettable that it’s taken Jacques Rivette’s controversial second feature 24 years to get distributed in this country in its complete and original form, there’s also something felicitous about its finally becoming available in an era when censorship of the arts is again on the warpath. Delays of various kinds have been central to the history of this potent if surprisingly chaste film, and there were comparable delays between the year Denis Diderot finished the novel that the film is based on (1760) and its actual appearance in print (1780-82 in serial form, and 1796–12 years after Diderot’s death — in the first printed edition).
Oddly enough, although the film makes no mention of this, the novel started out as a practical joke — an elaborate hoax staged by Diderot and some of his friends, who wanted to lure one of their cronies, the Marquis de Croismare, back to Paris after he retired to Normandy in 1758.… Read more »
Recovering this piece, dated March 27, 2000, from an old floppy disk, I no longer have any recollection of who commissioned it or for what publication. [November 2012 postscript: It was the May-June 2000 issue of Film Comment.] — J.R.
Keeping up with Resnais hasn’t been easy. One can find all his recent features on SECAM videos in France, but not the original English versions of I Want to Go Home (1989) or Gershwin (1992). Even Smoking/ No Smoking (1993) — a French adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a cycle of eight English plays — is available only without subtitles, in a fancy one-box set.
Who would have dreamed that Resnais — supremely international with Hiroshima, mon amour in the 50s, Last Year at Marienbad and La guerre est finie in the 60s, Providence in the 70s — would have wound up a French regionalist in the 80s and 90s, culminating in Same Old Song? This outcome is obviously more a matter of fate than design. It’s not as if Resnais has stood still; the recent features show little of the emotional interiority of his earlier work, veering closer to farce than anything preceding them. Why haven’t most American audiences been able to chart these changes?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 2001). — J.R.
With its classically seedy southern California setting, this second feature by Christopher Nolan is more memorable than his first, Following (1998). Nonetheless, it exemplifies what the English mean when they call something too clever by half. It’s a fascinating and gripping but also rather heartless and mean-spirited tale, much of it told backward, about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce) with short-term amnesia trying to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Severely hampered by his periodically forgetting everything that’s happened since this tragedy, he tries to compensate by shooting Polaroids and tattooing his body with various reminders and instructions. More a puzzle than a meaningful story, it reminds me of how Edmund Wilson compared reading a mystery to eagerly unpacking a box of excelsior, only to find a few rusty nails at the bottom. With Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Stephen Tobolowsky. R, 113 min. (JR)
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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 »
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From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 1993). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Maurice Pialat
With Jacques Dutronc, Alexandra London, Gerard Sety, Bernard le Coq, Corinne Boudon, and Elsa Zylberstein.
Consider the following two scenarios:
(1) In May 1890, Vincent van Gogh, missing one ear, arrives at Auvers-sur-Oise and meets Dr. Gachet — an avid art collector and fan of the Impressionists contacted by Vincent’s brother Theo — who advises the painter not to worry about his nervous attacks and to concentrate on his work. Taking a room at the Ravoux inn, Vincent follows the good doctor’s advice, but his alienation from others continues to torment him; during Bastille Day, when everyone else is celebrating outside, he sits alone inside, in extreme anguish, at a cafe table. While painting a field he is attacked by crows, and he agitatedly adds a few of these birds to his canvas before pulling out a revolver and shooting himself. He dies shortly afterward, his faithful brother at his bedside.
(2) In May 1890, Vincent van Gogh, both ears intact, arrives at Auvers-sur-Oise, takes a room at the Ravoux inn, and meets Dr. Gachet — an avid art collector and fan of the Impressionists contacted by Vincent’s brother Theo — who advises the painter not to worry about his nervous attacks and to concentrate on his work.
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 Chicago Reader (October 1, 1993). — J.R.
THE GOOD SON
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Written by Ian McEwan
With Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood, Wendy Crewson, David Morse, Daniel Hugh Kelly, and Quinn Culkin.
The innocent-looking child who’s really evil incarnate is a natural idea for a horror movie, but getting us to believe in such a character isn’t as simple as it might sound. Ray Bradbury had a relatively easy time of it in “The Small Assassin,” a short story first published back in 1946 about an infant who murders people, because babies are somewhat mysterious and hence easier to project abstract notions on. In The Good Son, a mainly unconvincing thriller offering us 12-year-old Macaulay Culkin as evil incarnate, there are actually two problems — accepting Culkin as a child and accepting him as evil. Perhaps what we mean today by both “child” and “evil,” ideologically speaking, is at the root of the problem.
The hero of The Good Son is another boy of roughly the same age, Mark (Elijah Wood), living in the southwest, who has been traumatized by the recent death of his mother. Shortly before she dies she tells him, “I’ll always be with you,” and Mark interprets this to mean that she’ll come back to him as someone else.… 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)
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From the Chicago Reader (March 19, 1993). — J.R.
FIRE IN THE SKY
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Robert Lieberman
Written by Tracy Torme
With D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Craig Sheffer, Peter Berg, and James Garner.
“Based on the true story,” crows Paramount in the ads, and the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen right after the opening credits. Under the circumstances — Fire in the Sky being the story of one Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), who was allegedly knocked to the ground by a ray from a UFO in an Arizona forest on November 5, 1975, then whisked away by the same UFO only to be spat out five days later minus his clothes and sanity — these are clearly fighting words.
I came to this movie fully prepared to execrate it, but on reflection I’m more inclined to congratulate Paramount on its ability to get people like me riled up with its Barnum-like come-on — a good way of getting all of us to pay attention. In fact, considering that the encounter with extraterrestrials is couched in subjective rather than objective terms, “based on the true story” doesn’t seem such an outrageous tag. Furthermore, some of the implications of the line are partially undercut, or at least displaced, by a quotation that appears on-screen before the credits: “‘Chance makes a plaything of a man’s life’ — Seneca, First century A.D.”… Read more »
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 Chicago Reader (January 1, 1995). — J.R.
This is the first Robert Benton movie I’ve really liked — and possibly my favorite Paul Newman performance since The Hustler. Based on a Richard Russo novel and set in upstate New York, it has both the poetry and the authenticity of failure, describing a community of fuckups headed by a 60-year-old part-time construction worker (Newman) who left his family decades earlier, and including his pathetic assistant (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his mean-spirited occasional employer (Bruce Willis at his best), the latter’s neglected wife (Melanie Griffith), and an ineffectual one-legged lawyer (Gene Saks). Conceived somewhat in the spirit of Chekhov’s stories, this 1994 feature ambles along semiplotlessly, focusing on the petty love-hatreds that link people together in small towns and the everyday orneriness that keeps them alive; it becomes only slightly less compelling when it develops a plot about the hero belatedly making peace with his abandoned son and one of his two grandsons. For better and for worse, it’s still a Hollywood movie (and a white boys’ movie to boot), but one with a more alert eye and feeling for American life than most of its competitors. With Jessica Tandy (in one of her last performances) and Dylan Walsh.… Read more »