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 (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 (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)
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 the Chicago Reader (July 8, 2005). Nine years later, having recently reseen this fabulous film on Blu-Ray (a beautiful job from Warners, with many enticing extras), I would currently maintain that what I formerly called the “key cinematic sources” should probably have been called key cinematic cross-references — to which one should add Raul Ruiz’s City of Pirates for its own shot which purports to be a view of someone’s teeth from the inside of his mouth. — J.R.
Tim Burton finally fulfills the promise of Beetlejuice (1988) with this imaginative masterpiece, adapted from the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl but characterized by Burton’s special feeling for color, architecture, and nightmarish dislocation. Adapted by John August, this schematic fable of five children invited to tour a mysterious candy factory is well served by the surrealistic design, Johnny Depp’s mannerist performance as the androgynous chocolate tycoon Willy Wonka, and the deft digital wizardry that multiplies actor Deep Roy into the entire workforce of the Wonka factory, performing crazed production numbers. (Among the key cinematic sources here are the ice cream factory in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions and the hyperbolic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) There’s a streak of moralism, but it never becomes as sticky as the candy because the invention never flags. Read more
From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
One of the best contemporary war films I know is this singular 1988 feature, the first by Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes (Po di sangui). The first half, as elemental and as unadorned as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, concentrates on women fighting alongside guerrillas at the end of Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence in 1973, attacked by Portuguese helicopters as they travel on foot close to the border. The second half, more diffuse and at times more rhetorical, deals with the ambiguous conditions of the war’s aftermath. The title means “those whom death refused,” and true to that notion the heroine (Bia Gomes) has been fighting for about a decade. Gomes (no relation to the director) manages to convey the loss of her children in a wordless and underplayed moment that shook me to my core. Flora Gomes appears in a cameo as president of a postwar sector. 93 min. Film Center, Saturday, August 12, 4:00, and Thursday, August 17, 6:00.
From the February 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Here’s one very sick and messed-up movie. As misogynistic as anything I’ve seen in ages, it’s tricked up with enough fancy cinematography (by Guy Dufaux) to guarantee it sub-Hitchcockian credentials of the sort that some reviewers eagerly hand out to Brian De Palma. A surveillance specialist for the British secret service (Ewan McGregor) who’s haunted by the loss of his wife and little girl years earlier obsessively tracks a psychopathic murderer (Ashley Judd) across the U.S. The first couple of times he and we watch her take her clothes off through his surveillance equipment, grisly murders follow; after that we get more grisly stuff but less cheesecake. Writer-director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), adapting a novel by Marc Behm, shows how much he likes The Conversation, Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, and Basic Instinct by serving up pastiches of them all and hoping everything somehow fits together. (To all appearances, the plot was resolved with a coin flip.) According to this movie’s view of femininity, Genevieve Bujold as a reform school official is womanly, therefore evil, and K.D. Lang as a secret service contact is androgynous, therefore OK. Read more
From the August 15, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
If you thought virtual-reality thrillers and spin-offs of The Silence of the Lambs had run their course, guess again. Jennifer Lopez, who looks great in a rubber suit, keeps putting one on in order to enter the unconscious of a serial killer/mad scientist-genius (Vincent D’Onofrio) and discover where he’s hidden his latest victim; meanwhile, hot and bothered FBI agent Vince Vaughn is also on the case. There’s almost no plot here and even less character — just a lot of pretexts for S-M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia. Tarsem Singh, a specialist in commercials and music videos (assuming one can distinguish between the two), directed a script by Mark Protosevich, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste costars as the voice of reason, present to offer an occasional change of pace. 107 min. (JR)
From a 1989 catalog that I wrote most of for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein (an interview that accompanied this piece will also be posted on the site in a couple of days). I worked for Klein briefly in 1973, when I was living in Paris, translating a script of his called Demain la ville from French to English so that Elliott Gould, who was being considered as one of the leads, could read it. (A portion of this script was later transformed into Klein’s The Model Couple.) — J.R.
Anybody who pretends to be objective isn’t realistic. — William Klein on cinéma-vérité (1)
I have a great feeling of nostalgia for the expressionist film. Although I don’t know why I say nostalgia: such films are still being made, and as far as l’m concerned we can never go beyond expressionism. Bill Klein’s Mr. Freedom, for example, is a completely expressionistic film. Maybe that’s why it provoked such violent reactions: some people just can’t accept having reality transposed to another level. — Alain Resnais (2)
One of the limitations of conventional film history, with its subdivisions of schools and movements, is that many interesting filmmakers who are unlucky enough to exist apart from neat categories tend to disappear between the cracks. Read more
From a 1989 catalog that I did for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein. — J.R.
William Klein on His Film Work
Klein made the following remarks in a telephone conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum in early November 1988.
On Broadway by Light (1958) and Orson Welles
I did this book on New York: black-and-white, grungy photographs. People said, ‘What a put-down — New York is not like that. New York is a million things, and you just see the seamy side.” So I thought I would do a film showing how seamy New York was, but intellectually, by doing a thing on electric- light signs. How beautiful they are, and what an obsessive, brainwashing message they carry. And everybody is so thankful for this super spectacle. Anyway, I think it’s the first Pop film.
Afterwards, I went from New York to Paris on a boat. We were on the pier with all our suitcases when I saw Orson Welles with a cigar and a little attaché case – that’s all he had as luggage. I went up to him and said, “Listen, I’ve just shot a film. Would you like to see it?” I showed it to him in the boat’s movie theater, and he said, “This is the first film I’ve ever seen in which the color is absolutely necessary.” Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.
A highly intriguing if not always fully successful first feature (1990) by independent writer-director Hal Hartley, shot in his hometown on Long Island, gives us, among other characters, a mechanic mistaken for a priest (Robert Burke) returning from a prison sentence, a politically alienated teenager (Adrienne Shelly), and the teenager’s mercenary redneck father (Christopher Cooke). Fantasies about global annihilation obsess the teenager, fantasies about money obsess her father, and fantasies about a pair of murders apparently committed by the mechanic obsess almost everyone else. The unvarnished quality of some of the acting limits this effort in spots, but the quirky originality of the story, characters, and filmmaking keeps one alert and curious. With Julia McNeal, Mark Bailey, and Gary Sauer. (JR) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.
One of the rare fiction features about the jazz world made by a black filmmaker — and arguably much more important than Mo’ Better Blues, though it’s rarely shown. This 1977 film by Larry Clark, written by Ted Lange, follows a young saxophonist (Nathaniel Taylor) recently released from prison who tries to deal with the political aspects of his profession with the help of an older musician (Clarence Muse). Original and thoughtful, this is a very special first feature, with a feeling for the music that’s boldly translated into film style. (JR)
Here’s where the original post is, dated June 7, 2007, which has a better layout as well as 17 hyperlinks. This is basically a piece of postmodernist fiction, for better and for worse. –J.R.
The Origins of Goofus McPherson
June 7, 2007 – 12:08 p.m.
Goofus: a Latin declension of the middle-class Disney mutt, best known for his unbuttoned longjohns and his stammering, guttural dim-wittedness. McPherson: the lovesick, necrophiliac cop played by Dana Andrews in Laura. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Walt Disney hired Otto Preminger to remake his own noir as a cartoon, a sort of animated True-Life Adventure. Or that Otto Preminger, opting for an animated remake himself, farmed out part of the work to the Disney studio, which took it upon itself to undermine the class status of Detective Lt. Mark McPherson by turning this gumshoe into a bourgeois fall guy and a dumb-ass canine to boot, meanwhile converting the Vincent Price character into some version of Lumpjaw the Bear, who was even dumber than Goofy, and which suggests refashioning Gene Tierney in the title role of the sweet missy as Lulabelle.
Why the Latin declension? Let’s call it an all-too-American cultural as well as psychosexual trade-off. Read more