From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1994). — J.R.
** SERIAL MOM
Directed and written by John Waters
With Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Patricia Hearst, and Suzanne Somers.
“Outside it’s hot and muggy. I buy a carton of cigarettes, ever bitter that I’m taxed so highly (11) on the one purchase that actually brings me happiness. They ought to tax yogurt (12); that’s what causes cancer. A neighbor, who always seems too familiar for her own good, passes me and makes the mistake of saying, ‘Good morning.’ ‘Shut up!’ I snap, making a mental note of her hideous tube top (13) and ridiculous Farrah Fawcett hairdo (14), so popular with fashion violators. And then I see it, a goddam ticket on my car, even though the meter (15) has only been in effect ten minutes. I have to take my rage out on someone! I run toward this fashion scofflaw as she gets into the most offensive vehicle known to man, “Le Car’ (16), and yank her door open as she frantically tries to lock it. ‘Not so fast, miss,’ I bark. ‘There’s a certain matter of this ticket you’ll have to take care of — $16 for gross and willful fashion violations!’ Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1990). — J.R.
One of the classiest and most experimental 3-D efforts from Hollywood — as well as one of the best MGM musicals of the 1950s that didn’t come from the Arthur Freed unit. Adapted by Dorothy Kingsley from the successful 1948 Cole Porter stage musical and directed by the underrated George Sidney, this 1953 feature does interesting things with mirrors, windows, and the relationship between stage and audience, playing on the differences between theatrical and film space and, paradoxically, exploiting 3-D as an artificial and antirealistic effect. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel play an estranged couple who uneasily join forces in a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with much comic confusion between life and art. The cast (including Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, Bob Fosse, and Carol Haney) and score are consistently pleasurable. 109 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 29, 2002). — J.R.
Jean-Luc Godard once described this lush 1965 studio effort as a couple of bakers filming their families on weekends in Super-8. In fact it’s Vincente Minnelli filming Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Eva Marie Saint, and Charles Bronson in 35-millimeter ‘Scope, and doing what he can with a campy script by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson. Taylor plays a beatnik living with her illegitimate son in Big Sur who falls in love with Burton, a married minister. The film’s theme, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” won an Oscar, but the story is strictly from hunger. 116 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (March 22, 1991). — J.R.
One of the most underrated films of 1990, representing Corman’s directorial comeback after 19 years, adapts Brian Aldiss’s intellectually ambitious novel about a 21st-century scientist (John Hurt) who finds himself in Geneva in 1816, where he meets Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and her famous fictional creations, Frankenstein and his monster. Far from a total success (and apparently hampered by some studio recutting), this metaphysical reflection on technology with SF and monster-movie trimmings is packed with wit, originality, and eccentricity. If you missed it the first time around — which wasn’t hard to do, given its perfunctory promotion and distribution — you should definitely catch it. With Raul Julia and Michael Hutchence. (Music Box, Monday, March 25)
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
One of the most unjustly neglected of Luis Buñuel’s films, this 1952 feature also happens to be one of the two he directed in English (the other is the equally neglected The Young One). Buñuel shows an overall fidelity to the plot of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel while steering the thematic concerns in a somewhat different direction, and even manages to incorporate a few touches of surrealism. Dan O’Herlihy is superb in the title role (he was nominated for an Oscar when this film was belatedly released in the U.S.), while Jaime Fernandez makes a more than adequate Friday. The color photography is also distinctive. 90 min.
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1990), tweaked in April 2014. This film is finally available now in a DVD that does its visuals (and John Alton’s cinematography) something approaching full justice. One of the juicier actors in this action romp that I should have mentioned is Arnold Moss, seen in the first still below with Robert Cummings. — J.R.
Along with James Whale’s The Great Garrick, this 1949 melodrama about the French Revolution, also known as The Black Book, is one of the few period pictures that qualify as film noir; Anthony Mann directed it with sumptuously arty chiaroscuro (cinematography by John Alton). With the two leads (Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl) periodically steering it in the direction of camp, this film is loads of fun. Richard Basehart also stars (as Maximillian Robespierre, no less); Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie coscripted. 88 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1994). — J.R.
QUIZ SHOW ***
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Paul Attanasio
With Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald, Elizabeth Wilson, and Paul Scofield.
Behind the opening and closing credits of Quiz Show we hear two different pop versions of “Mack the Knife” — Bobby Darin’s bright, Lyle Lovett’s funereal — perhaps an indication that director Robert Redford has something faintly Brechtian in mind. If so, probably the most relevant Brecht passage is the exchange that concludes the 12th scene of Galileo, when Andrea, the son of Galileo’s housekeeper, quotes the maxim “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo replies, “No, Andrea: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.'”
On the other hand, this is Robert Redford we’re talking about, who’s been a hero in this unhappy land for the past three decades, not someone who’s ever been known to seriously rock any boats. A better indication of what makes Quiz Show so interesting, suggestive, and fruitful (if not Brechtian) is the showroom spiel for a glittering Chrysler 300 given to the movie’s hero, congressional investigator Richard N. Goodwin, shown out shopping just before the opening credits. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1984 (Vol. 51, No. 609). This was published long after I left the MFB staff in early 1977, and by this time, over seven years later, the magazine had finally abandoned its highly dubious practice of restricting all its reviews to single paragraphs. –- J.R.
The Criminal Code
Director: Howard Hawks
Cert–A.dist—Filmfinders. p.c–Columbia. A Howard Hawk production. p–Harry Cohn. sc–Seton I. Miller, Fred Niblo Jnr. Based on the play by Martin Flavin. ph–Teddy Tezlaff, James [Wong] Howe, (uncredited) William O’Connell. ed–Edward Curtiss. a.d–Edward Jewell. m–(not credited). sd. rec–Glenn Rominger. l.p–Walter Huston (Warden Martin Brady), Phillips Holmes (Robert Graham), Constance Cummings (Mary Brady), Mary Doran (Gertrude Williams), De Witt Jennings (Gleason), John Sheehan (MacManus), Boris Karloff (Galloway), Otto Hoffman (Jim Fales), Clark Marshall (Runch), Ethel Wales (Katie), lohn St. Polis (Dr. Rincwulf), Paul Porcassi (Spelvin), Hugh Walker (Lew), Andy Devine (Prisoner), Jack Vance (Reporter), Arthur Hoyt (Nettleford), Nicholas Soussanin, James Guilfoyle, Lee Phelps. 3,245 ft.n90 mins. (16 mm.) Original running time–97 mins. Read more
This review was published in the June 1985 issue of Video Times. Criterion has brought out an excellent Blu-Ray edition of this film that I can highly recommend — along with Thomas Pynchon’s Foreword to the 2003 Penguin edition of Orwell’s novel. — J.R.
(1984), C, Director: Michael Radford. With John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, and Cyril Cusack [see below]. 110 min. R. USA, $79.95.
Director Michael Radford’s 1984, filmed in England between April and June of 1984 (the same period during which the action of George Orwell’s famous 1949 novel takes place), is a film adaptation that succeeds brilliantly. In one fell swoop, it repoliticizes the novel — translating it into terms that speak directly to the present. Paradoxically, it pulls off this singular feat not through any spurious “updating” of Orwell’s terrifying novel but by situating the novel squarely in its own period. Consequently, the film’s action can be said to unfold simultaneously in three separate time frames: the past (specifically the 1940s, during which Orwell conceived and wrote his novel), the future (as we postulate it in this decade), and the present (the mid-1980s). Emerging from the interplay between these three contexts is one of the most rigorous and faithful literary adaptations in the history of cinema — a 1984 that one feels sure Orwell himself would have recognized and appreciated. Read more
From the August 1985 issue of Video Times. — J.R.
(1984), C, Director: Sidney Lumet. With Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver, Catherine Hicks, Carrie Fisher, Howard Da Silva, Hermione Gingold. 104 min. PG-13. Hi-Fi, CBS/Fox, $79.98. Three stars.
Perhaps the most delightful single aspect of thus warm, contemporary New York comedy is the degree to which it suggests anything but a movie of the present. From the animated cartoon behind the opening credits to the winsome conclusion in central Park, Garbo Talks registers more like a Hollywood film of the sixties or seventies than an expression of today’s sensibilities. (Where’s Poppa?, an absurdist comedy of 1970, provides a useful cross-reference.) The fact that scriptwriter Larry Grusin and director Sidney Lumet both seem perfectly aware of this adds a tang of irony to the film’s pleasure. They know, as we do, that lovable, eccentric radical like Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft), who would have seemed almost commonplace in a movie 10 or 15 years ago, comes across as an audacious concept in the mid-eighties.
The plot of Garbo Talks is built around Estelle, and the role fits Anne Bancroft like a glove. The movie manages to milk the maximum out of her performance — one of the best in her impressive career — without keeping her onscreen any longer than is absolutely necessary. Read more
From the May 1, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
High-grade infotainment, even though it’s directed by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream), this is an “intimate” documentary of Woody Allen’s 1996 European tour with his Dixieland band, filmed at Allen’s instigation by his own production company, with Allen rather than Kopple retaining final cut, though it’s made to seem that Allen went along with the scheme rather than dreamed it up himself. On the plus side, it shows him at his most serious, as a dedicated (and better than average) clarinetist performing with an OK New Orleans-style band, and it provides some generous insights into his psychic background when his unsupportive parents greet him back in New York at the end. It also furnishes plenty of evidence of his outsize European reputation as he’s mobbed by fans in Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Venice, Milan, Bologna, Turin, Rome, and London. The controlled casualness of Allen’s breakfast patter with his young wife, Soon-Yi Previn, which tends to foster the pretense that a camera crew isn’t around, seems to balance candor with concealment, just as his fictional features do. All in all, I found this more absorbing than Everyone Says I Love You and Deconstructing Harry, though it certainly isn’t a patch on Manhattan Murder Mystery. Read more
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1985). — J.R.
With its continuing devotion to the independent and marginal, the Rotterdam Film Festival offered fewer peaks this year than last, but more than enough rolling happy valleys in between. Full-bodied retrospectives given to Jonathan Demme and Nelson Pereira dos Santos wove their way almost contrapuntally through the nine days of movies -– providing the selection with a sturdy populist backbone. Guided by the Langlois-like eclecticism and passion of director Hubert Bals, the festival virtually rebaptises every film that it shows under the banner of a relaxed, low-budget freedom that the Spielbergs and Coppolas can only dream about.
Pereira dos Santos and Demme are cases in point. From the sixteenth century (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman) to the post-nuclear future (Who Is Beta?) to the impoverished present (Rio, 40 Degrees; Vidas Secas), dos Santos’ films blend anthropological wit with neo-realist compassion. The sociological wit and Renoir-like warmth of Demme exude a comparable bias towards the downtrodden. Oddly enough, the two sensibilities nearly come together in the very different pop/folk musicals Estrada da Vida (1980) and Stop Making Sense (1984). Respectively a docu-drama about wall painters who make it big as country singers in Sao Paulo, and an on-stage concert performance by the Talking Heads, both films make striking use of flat colour backdrops to objectify and enhance the cultural clout of the performers. Read more
From the September 1985 Video Times. — J.R.
Ivan the Terrible
(1944), B/W, Director: Sergei Eisenstein. With N. Cherkassov, S. Birman, P. Kadotchnikov, and V. Pudovkin. 96 min. Subtitled. Corinth, $59.95.
(1946), B/W & C. With N. Cherkassov, S. Birman, P. Kadotchnikov, and V. Pudovkin. 90 min. Subtitled. Corinth, $59.95.
For all the growing availability of many film masterpieces on tape, there is such a world of difference between good and bad prints that we may wind up possessing less than we think we do. This is starkly illustrated by Corinth’s new editions of Ivan the Terrible, which offer the last work of Sergei Eisenstein in such a splendid condition that it automatically makes all the previous tape editions inadequate and obsolete.
What makes this offering so special is that it comes directly from the original source. Striking prints from the nitrate negative stored at Gosfilmofond (Moscow Film Archives), Corinth has restored the brilliance of the photography. The film’s subtle gradations and intricate lighting schemes are very much in evidence (the sinister gleams in certain characters’ eyes, for instance, are now fully visible). More importantly, thanks to the two full-color retimings, it has given us the climactic color sequence near the end of Part II, with its full range of reds, oranges, browns, grays, and blues — hues that have been virtually absent in the faded prints we have had to contend with over the past few decades. Read more
This book review appeared in the December 14, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Reader. For more on Wurlitzer, readers are invited to check out my reviews of Walker and Candy Mountain in the Chicago Reader, both available on this site, as well as a more comprehensive piece about his work as a novelist and screenwriter, published in Written By. — J.R.
By Rudolph Wurlitzer
Alfred A. Knopf: $13.95
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The difference between the art novel and the Hollywood novel can be as vast as the reaches between the East coast and the West coast, and any effort to wed the two in a shotgun marriage is liable to blow up in one’s face. Slow Fade, while an exceptionally and deceptively easy read, is far from being an easy book — which is one of the best things about it. That’s probably what Michael Herr means by “dangerous” in his jacket-blurb patter: “Slow Fade comes out of the space between real life and the movies and closes it up for good. A great book: beautiful, funny, and dangerous.” Any novel that begins with one character losing an eye and ends up with another losing his index finger is bound to be fraught with scary Oedipal tensions, and Slow Fade goes out of its way to make the most out of them. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 1988). — J.R.
1. A front-page story in the August 24 Variety begins, “Last week’s Republican National Convention garnered the worst network ratings of any convention in TV history.” An interesting piece of information, but not, as far as I know, one that was noted in daily newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, or on TV. Why does one have to go to Variety to discover this morsel of recent history? Perhaps it has something to do with Variety‘s status as a trade journal. Mainstream print and TV journalism may be part of the entertainment business, but they’re not generally about entertainment in the sense that a publication like Variety is.
The story in Variety goes on to report that both of this summer’s political conventions significantly boosted video rentals; a couple of large video rental chains reported increases in business between 30 and 57 percent. Do we interpret this as an opting for entertainment over news coverage, or as a preference for one kind of entertainment over another? Do we read it as a sign of desperate cynicism, or as a sign of healthy liberation? Or, if we read it as the latter, was it liberation only from the standard TV shows that the conventions were preempting? Read more