From the January 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
French movies about sexual and romantic obsession may be a dime a dozen, but what’s exceptional about Cedric Kahn’s 1998 film — apart from the fact that it’s a comedy — is its overall sense of sanity. A 40ish philosophy professor (Charles Berling) encounters the chunky, easygoing teenage model (Sophie Guillemin) of a recently deceased painter and starts meeting her for sex on a daily basis; gradually he becomes obsessed with her normality, trying to turn her into a femme fatale. Part of what makes this so funny is Guillemin’s unforced performance, which makes her imperturbable directness as believable as the professor’s neurosis. The sex scenes are fairly explicit, but to his credit Kahn doesn’t allow them to mythologize the characters. With Arielle Dombasle (sporting an uncharacteristic Louise Brooks hairdo) and the late Robert Kramer. In French with subtitles. 122 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 1999). — J.R.
James Bond will return, says the closing title of this somewhat better than average 007 adventure, but the bottom line is that he’s never been away. The cold war may be dead and buried, but British intelligence needs to be kept busy, even if this means — as the script briefly and wittily suggests — creating its own enemies. With an appropriately imperialistic title (does it apply to the villains or to Anglo-American intelligence? does it matter?), a better than average director (Michael Apted), and locations ranging from Spain to Azerbaijan to Turkey, this keeps one reasonably amused, titillated, and brain-dead for a little over two hours. The principal Bond babes this time around are Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards, not counting Judi Dench as Bond’s boss; Bruce Feirstein and Michael France had something to do with the script (1999, 127 min.). (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1989). — J.R.
Rudy Vallee turns in his best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker in this brilliant, simultaneously tender and scalding 1942 screwball comedy by Preston Sturgesone of the real gems in Sturges’s hyperproductive period at Paramount. Claudette Colbert, married to an ambitious but penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by Hackensacker. When McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother. Also on hand are such indelible Sturges creations as the Weenie King (Robert Dudley), the madly destructive Ale and Quail Club, Hackensacker’s acerbic sister (Mary Astor), and her European boyfriend of obscure national origins (Sig Arno). The Hackensacker character may be the closest thing to self-parody in the Sturges canon, but it’s informed with such wry wisdom and humor that it transcends its personal nature (as well as its reference to such tycoons as the Rockefellers). With William Demarest, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, and Jimmy Conlin. 90 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (November 19, 1999). — J.R.
Winner of the 1998 Palme d’Or at Cannes, this rambling but beautiful feature by Theo Angelopoulos may seem like an anthology of 60s and 70s European art cinema: family nostalgia from Bergman and seaside frolics from Fellini; long, mesmerizing choreographed takes and camera movements from Jancso and Tarkovsky; haunting expressionist moods and visions from Antonioni. Yet it’s so stirring and flavorsome — far richer emotionally and poetically than Woody Allen’s derivations — that I was moved and captivated throughout its 132 minutes. Bruno Ganz is commanding as a Greek writer who’s recently learned that he’s terminally ill; the part was conceived for the late Marcello Mastroianni, yet Ganz seems perfect for it (though he’s dubbed by a Greek actor, as Mastroianni undoubtedly would have been). Brooding over the loss of his seaside retreat and family home in Thessaloniki, the hero meets an eight-year-old illegal alien from Albania (Achilleas Skevis) and spends the day crisscrossing the past and visiting his familiar haunts, sometimes in the flesh and sometimes in his imagination, and Angelopoulos is masterful in orchestrating these lyrical and complex encounters. With Isabelle Renauld. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 19 through 25.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1999). — J.R.
Writer-director Anthony Minghella and critic Frank Rich, both sounding like ventriloquist’s dummies for Miramax’s publicity department, touted this as an uncommercial movie that says something profound about the 90s. Yet their adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is commercial to the core. Ripley (Matt Damon), a young man on the make, is sent to Europe to retrieve a tycoon’s errant son; he winds up killing the son and assuming his identity, and Damon plays the character as a closeted homosexual and potential serial killer, which makes him about as salable as a movie hero can get these days. Rene Clement filmed Highsmith’s novel in 1960 as Purple Noon; that version was more conventional and derivative of Hitchcock, but at least it didn’t inflate the story, as Minghella does, to the proportions of Ben-Hur. As in Clement’s film, the Mediterranean settings are sumptuous, and Minghella has updated the novel’s action from the early to late 50s and made the errant son (unconvincingly played by Jude Law) a jazz musician, which allows for a pleasant if unadventurous score by Gabriel Yared and many familiar tracks. Familiarity is the watchword of this overblown opus, which neglects holes in the plot to play up its postmodern theme of identity as pastiche — a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
For all his versatility as a writer-director, I was surprised to learn that Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies) had made a film about the genesis of Gilbert and Sullivan’s mid-1880s comic opera The Mikado. Yet this 160-minute backstage musical is about something he knows intimately — the complex of personal, organizational, artistic, and cultural factors that go into putting on a show. Leigh begins with leisurely character sketches of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), two very different men whose collaboration appears to be at an end. Only after Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) drags him to a Japanese exhibition in London does The Mikado (and this movie) begin to take shape, and after that the film keeps getting better and better. The actors and actresses in the stage production, including Leigh regular Timothy Spall, all sing in their own voices, and Leigh’s flair for comedy and sense of social interaction shine as he shows all the ingredients in The Mikado beginning to mesh. Thoroughly researched and unobtrusively upholstered, this beautifully assured entertainment about Victorian England is a string of delights. With Ron Cook, Wendy Nottingham, Eleanor David, Kevin McKidd, Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson, and many Leigh standbys, including Alison Steadman and Katrin Cartlidge.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
Alain Resnais, probably the greatest living French filmmaker, has never made an indifferent or unadventurous film, and he’s much more talented and innovative than Francois Truffaut. On connait la chanson (1997, 120 min.), a more accurate translation of which might be I Recognize the Tune, was inspired by British screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven); its characters frequently break into lip-synched French pop songs, which serve as cross-references to their moods and aren’t always bound by gender. (When Resnais made similar use of French film clips in Mon oncle d’Amerique, contemporary actress Nicole Garcia was cross-referenced with Cocteau’s actor Jean Marais.) A comedy about real estate and class differences, Same Old Song was the biggest hit of Resnais’ career in France, superbly capturing Paris in the 90s; it’s less popular among viewers unfamiliar with the music, but even if you can’t follow all the nuances, this is fun and different and at times mysterious (periodically revealing Resnais’ surrealist roots). Written by and costarring the talented couple Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, who previously scripted and acted in Un air de famille (and wrote Resnais’ previous two features), this also has graceful performances by Resnais regulars Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, and Andre Dussollier.… Read more »
From the August 28, 1992 Chicago Reader; reprinted in my collection Placing Movies. — J.R.
THE PANAMA DECEPTION
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Barbara Trent
Written by David Kasper
Narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Bill Duke
Written by Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin
With Larry Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Victoria Dillard, Charles Martin Smith, Sydney Lassick, Clarence Williams III, Gregory Sierra, and Roger Guenveur Smith.
I wonder how many people under 35 know that one of the most frequent taunts hurled at President Lyndon Baines Johnson during antiwar demonstrations at the height of the Vietnam war was, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson did considerably more than any other U.S. president of this century to turn the civil rights movement into law — even going so far as to appropriate the movement’s theme song, “We Shall Overcome,” for a speech to Congress. But because of his behavior regarding nonwhites overseas, especially in Southeast Asia, a considerable part of the youth of the late 60s regarded him as a mass murderer, and told him so on every possible occasion. It seems plausible that Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968, announced only four days before Martin Luther King was assassinated, had more than a little to do with the repeated sting of that relentless chant.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.
A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2007). This film is currently available for free on YouTube. — J.R.
This 2006 feature is my favorite to date by English writer-director Christopher Petit (Radio On). Subtitled both On Stalking and Being Stalked and A Story of Obsessive Passion, it’s about a young woman (Rebecca Marshall) stalking a London academic (Gregory Dart, author of the source novel) who is himself obsessed with a woman in Leipzig. Both paranoid and lyrical, the movie visualizes its strange tale mainly through ersatz surveillance footage, and the music is appropriately Hitchcockian. To complicate matters, the first-person voice-over is shared by Marshall and Petit himself (his portion is full of film references). Formally this is a dazzler. 77 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1994). — J.R.
I would nominate this authoritative 1962 adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel The King’s Ransom as Akira Kurosawa’s best nonperiod picture, though Ikiru and Rhapsody in August are tough competitors. It’s a 142-minute ‘Scope thriller in black and white, except for one partly colorized shot, about a kidnapping that goes awry: a chauffeur’s son is accidentally spirited away instead of the son of the businessman the chauffeur works for. The title refers to the topographical layout of the action as well as class divisions, and Kurosawa’s script and masterful mise en scene do a lot with both. Scorsese has been talking for years about doing a remake of this, but it’s hard to believe he could equal it. With Toshiro Mifune. In Japanese with subtitles. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.
Dancer in the Dark
Directed and written by Lars von Trier With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and Jean-Marc Barr.
To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d’Or and best actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson — one of the only Europudding directors who’s both crass and clever enough to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around — it has provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras) as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous detractors come from this country too. It’s not too surprising considering that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one you’d expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50 years ago.… Read more »
I no longer remember if this was at the Miss America
Pageant, and I’m not even 100% sure it was Bert Parks,
but I do remember that either Bert or someone much
like him decided to show what a regular guy he was by
singing the Elvis anthem “Blue Suede Shoes” on TV. But
because this was American TV in the mid-50s, he had to
clean up the already stupid hyperbolic lyrics (“You can burn my
house, steal my car, drink my liquor from an old fruit jar”) by
replacing the last line with, “Drink my soda from a soda jar”.
Who ever heard of a soda jar before that moment, or since
that moment either? Bert or his lyricist or their censor must
have invented the soda jar in order to make this Elvis homage
or watered-down Elvis ripoff sound more proper, but even so,
soda jars have been lodged in my brain ever since. [3/26/20]… Read more »
The following is a chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver, CO: Arden Press) — which I’m sorry to say is only available now at ridiculously inflated prices (one copy at Amazon currently sells for $989.90). It probably remains the least well known of my books. I’m immensely grateful to Jed Rapfogel and Stephanie Gray at New York’s Anthology Film Archives for furnishing me with a document file of this essay so that I could post it here, originally to help promote their Mark Rappaport retrospective in March 2011, prior to the updated version of this held earlier this year. Readers should also consult my separate articles about Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg as well as my interview with Rappaport about the latter, all of which are also available on this site, along with a more recent piece about two of his videos. — J.R.
When the critic of a narrative film is feeling desperate, the first place that he or she is likely to turn to is a plot summary. Feeling rather desperate about my capacity to do justice to the last two features of the remarkable Mark Rappaport, I looked up the synopses and reviews of The Scenic Route and Impostors in the usually reliable Monthly Film Bulletin, which appeared precisely three years apart (February 1979 and February 1982), only to discover that each critic, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Simon Field, respectively, starts off with the admission that his own synopsis is misleading.… Read more »
This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.
A joint effort by French ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch and French sociologist Edgar Morin (The Stars) yielded this remarkable 1961 documentary investigation into what Parisians — regarded as a “strange tribe” — were thinking and feeling during the summer of 1960. This was when the war in Algeria was still a hot issue, although many other topics are discussed as well, private as well as public. At first, everyone is asked, simply, “Are you happy?” More generally, the film catches the shifting emotional tenor of a few lives over a certain period.
The filmmakers treat their interview subjects with a great deal of respect and sensitivity. Among them are Marilou, an Italian emigre working as a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma; a French student named Jean-Pierre; a factory worker named Angelo; an African student named Landry; a painter and his wife named Henri and Maddie; and a pollster named Marceline assisting with some of the other interviews.
Not only do we see these individuals in diverse groupings, even on holiday in St.-Tropez;… Read more »