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)
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)
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)
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 (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 (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)
This appeared in the Chicago Reader in their Christmas issue (December 25) in 1992. — J.R.
The presumption behind most ten-best lists is that they include items available to everybody. One can always look at such lists and say, “Too bad I missed such and such. Maybe I’ll catch up with it on video.” But few people seem to be aware that they may never catch up with a film, because it never made it to Chicago at all—either to theaters or to video stores. In a consumer culture like ours we aren’t supposed to think too much about what merchandisers choose to put in front of us; it’s better for business if we assume that new movies just fall from the sky into theaters and video stores—and that those that don’t make it don’t deserve to. However, I see a certain number of movies in other countries every year that don’t make it to town, and sometimes they’re better than the movies that do. Why this happens so often is a matter worth exploring briefly.
In 1938 the U.S. government filed an antitrust action against Paramount Pictures, objecting to the monopolies of movie theaters held by the studios. By the end of 1946 a court judgment enjoined not only Paramount but also Loew’s, RKO, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century-Fox from acquiring additional theaters. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1990). — J.R.
Luis Buñuel’s first and most radical feature (1930) was banned for decades, and it continues to pack a jolt. Forsaking consecutive plot, the film is more like an anarchist bomb, starting off as a documentary before assaulting church, state, and society —particularly high society — in the name of eros. Funny, blasphemous, sexy, strange, subtle, and evocative in its use of sound, it’s also thoroughly Buñuelian, though without the bittersweet sense of resigned acceptance that characterizes some of his later works. Except for his 1932 documentary Las Hurdes, this ferocious act of revolt kept Buñuel virtually unemployed as a director for 17 years; when he finally returned as a narrative filmmaker, he delivered something quite different from the wild poetry of his first three films. In French with subtitles. 60 min.
From the September 30, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Roman Polanski said he wanted to make a movie his kids could see, and clearly his take on the Charles Dickens novel, with its childhood feelings of panic and deprivation, is free of the postmodern irony most contemporary directors would have brought to the material. Working again with writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Polanski honors the craft of classical storytelling and never flinches from the book’s melodramatic extremes in portraying the horrors of poverty. Apart from Ben Kingsley’s elaborately detailed Fagin, there are no fancy actors’ turns, and the sets and costumes look splendidly (if sordidly) lived in, reminding one that Tess (1979), Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy, won Oscars in both categories. With Barney Clark as Oliver. PG-13, 130 min. (JR)
From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976). — J.R.
Behind the credits, a face peering out through a window; a downward pan revealing a vertiginous drop to the courtyard below; a pan back to the window and round the court to another face, a girl’s, which quickly turns into Roman Polanski’s; a continuing movement past a chimney, across more windows-down one side of the building, over a railing and up another side — eventually coming round to the door leading to the street, which Polanski enters . . . If the remainder of The Tenant were as impressive as the first shot, we conceivably might have had a masterpiece on our hands. Nearly as concise as the extended crane shot opening Touch of Evil, it differs from the latter by arranging its arsenal of elements into a non-narrative pattern — a set of materials which, except for the girl turning into Polanski, are related spatially but nor chronologically, until Polanski’s entrance through the street door launches the story proper.
A naturalised Pole named Trelkovsky is interested in seeing a flat, and the unfriendly concierge (Shelley Winters) gives him a hard time about it, agreeing to take him upstairs only after he slips her some money. Read more
From the March1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An unscrupulous rare-book dealer (Johnny Depp) is hired by a wealthy demonologist (Frank Langella) to track down and authenticate the remaining copies of a medieval illustrated book apparently authored or coauthored by Satan himself. This Roman Polanski feature, which he adapted with Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s best-selling Spanish novel El Club Dumas, is a head scratcher in some respects, a mystery thriller that gradually mutates into a metaphysical fable without adequately developing its characters. But it’s so visually striking, so compulsively watchable as storytelling, and so personal even in its enigmas that I found it much more pleasurable than any of the Hollywood genre films I’ve seen lately; despite the fact that it’s 132 minutes long, I felt more regret than relief when it ended. Polanski is one of the few remaining directors of craft belonging to the classic novelistic tradition of Welles and Kubrick, and if this picaresque adventure lacks the conviction of Bitter Moon, it’s at least as good as Frantic. With Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Barbara Jefford; the sleek cinematography is by Darius Khondji (Seven, Stealing Beauty). (JR)
I still seem to be in a minority in preferring Family Plot to Alfred Hitchcock’s other late films, but after reseeing the film countless times, I’m not about to revise my opinion. It would appear that some of Hitchcock’s biggest champions, such as Robin Wood, have tended to dismiss the film because it isn’t sicker. I tried to respond to their criticism at least provisionally in the opening of this review, written for the summer 1976 Sight and Sound, which they ran as their cover story for that issue and which I’ve revised, but only minimally. — J.R.
“Everything’s perverted in a different way,” Hitchcock has noted; and perhaps no other filmmaker has illustrated this postulate better, by starting from precisely the opposite premise. Without a well-established sense of the normal, the abnormal doesn’t even stand a chance of being recognized, and the director has always made it his business to offer all the right signposts and comforts to guarantee complacency before proceeding to unhinge it. Yet one of the rules of the game is deception, and if the Master’s artistry has been identified more with rude shocks than with the subtler conditioning which makes them possible, one can be certain that this too plays a role in his overall strategies. Read more