From the Chicago Reader (November 21, 1997). I tend to respect Verhoeven more nowadays than I did back then. — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Ed Neumeier
With Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Seth Gilliam, and Patrick Muldoon.
When did American action blockbusters stop being American? Sometime in the last two decades, in between the genocidal adventures of George Lucas’s Star Wars and those of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, the national pedigree disappeared. True, Starship Troopers is a simplified, watered-down version of Robert A. Heinlein’s all-American novel, and it’s consciously modeled on Hollywood World War II features (as was much of Star Wars); it even boasts an “all-American” cast that could have sprung full-blown from a camp classic of Aryan physiognomy like Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000. But the only state it can be said to truly reflect or honor is one of drifting statelessness. If the alien bugs that populate Verhoeven’s movie wanted to learn what American life and culture was like in 1977, Star Wars would have served as a useful and appropriate object of study; but if they wanted to know what American — or even global — life was like in 1997, Starship Troopers would tell them zip. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 10, 1989). It’s sad to hear that the great and irreplaceable Jackie Burroughs passed away on September 22, 2010. — J.R.
A WINTER TAN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker, and Aerlyn Weissman
Written by Burroughs
With Burroughs, Erando Gonzales, Javier Torres, and Diana d’Aquila.
A Winter Tan is startling because it mainly succeeds in its aims though they’re based on at least three dubious premises. The first is that a volume of letters can be adapted into a plausible dramatic film. The second is that the letters in question — an American woman’s descriptions of her sexual adventures in Mexico, written before she was murdered, probably as a result of a sexual escapade — can be seen as exhilarating and life-enhancing instead of just depressing. And the third dubious premise is that a film made collectively by five directors can come across with a singular voice and style, a consistent meaning and purpose.
I haven’t read Maryse Holder’s book Give Sorrow Words, which was published posthumously some years ago, first by Grove Press in hardcover and then by Avon in paperback, and is currently out of print in both editions. Read more
From the Chicago Reader, July 28, 1995. —J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Todd Haynes
With Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Ronnie Farer, Martha Velez-Johnson, Chauncy Leopardi, and James LeGros.
I know that Americans are supposed to hate whatever they can’t understand, and certainly current Hollywood filmmaking is predicated to the point of tedium on this truism. But part of what makes Todd Haynes’s Safe the most provocative American art film of the year so far — fascinating, troubling, scary, indelible — is that it can’t be entirely understood. The mystery and ambiguity missing from mainstream movies are all the more precious, magical, even sexy here, in a 35-millimeter feature employing professional actors set partly in the plusher suburban reaches of the San Fernando Valley.
By chance the star of Safe, Julianne Moore, also plays the female lead in the least mysterious Hollywood feature of the moment, the unspeakable Nine Months — a movie that essentially celebrates the world that Safe attacks. This makes Haynes’s film even more dangerous: seeing both films might be like combining chemicals that produce lethal explosives. One suspects that anyone who sees both in swift succession will be flirting with social or political revolution or some sort of madness. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 5, 1999). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Roger Kumble
With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Sean Patrick Thomas, Louise Fletcher, and Swoosie Kurtz.
Cruel Intentions is the fourth movie adaptation I’ve seen of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, possibly the best French novel of the 18th century. It’s also the third version in English — though the first to reconfigure the plot as a contemporary teenage sex comedy. Will it be the last? Considering how serviceable the story is, it’s easy to imagine it being dusted off every decade or so for use in that dubious genre. The substitution of teen yuppies for 18th-century aristocrats isn’t a precise match — as some awkward carryovers of characters’ names makes clear — yet surprisingly, writer-director Roger Kumble comes close to pulling this off. (A writer on such comedies as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Kumble’s art-movie profile appears to be nonexistent.) He sets the story in and around Manhattan, Sin City itself, and makes the scheming protagonists, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), stepsiblings enrolled at an exclusive prep school just outside the city. Read more
Written for the Chicago Film Festival and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s week-long streaming of this masterpiece (April 24-30). — J.R.
It isn’t necessary to have seen anything by Portuguese master Pedro Costa before encountering the title heroine here, but if you saw his previous feature, Horse Money, you’ve already met her—a striking, angry middle-aged woman from Cape Verde who finally found the money to fly to Lisbon to join her long-absent husband, only to discover that she just missed his funeral. Settling into his rickety, crumbling house and trying to come to terms with her grief, keeping company mainly with a semi-mad priest (Costa regular Ventura), she’s precisely the kind of person that the world and movies tend to ignore but Costa’s epic portraiture, so beautifully lit and framed that it becomes jaw-dropping, builds an exalted altar to her, inviting us to luxuriate in her hushed presence. Audiences tend to have an easier time with this dark reverie than critics because it takes us somewhere very special and respects us far too much to tell us why. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
From the Chicago Reader (July 11, 1995). — J.R.
If you gave up on writer-director Amy Heckerling after Look Who’s Talking and its sequel, this 1995 comedy — improbably but cleverly adapted by Heckerling from Jane Austen’s Emma — might get you interested again. As in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, her first feature, Heckerling displays a nice feeling for teenagers — teenage girls especially — and some flair for witty dialogue. Here she’s concentrating on the travails of a wealthy but good-hearted Beverly Hills consumer (Alicia Silverstone) as she tries to establish a romance between two of her teachers (Wallace Shawn and associate producer Twink Caplan), make over a new transfer student (Brittany Murphy) with the help of her best friend (Stacey Dash), pass a driving test, and lose her virginity. Though this drifts at times as storytelling, it’s mainly lightweight but personable fun. With Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Jeremy Sisto, Julie Brown, and Dan Hedaya. 97 min. (JR)
From the November 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last feature (1975) is a shockingly literal and historically questionable transposition of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom to the last days of Italian fascism. Most of the film consists of long shots of torture, though some viewers have been more upset by the bibliography that appears in the credits. Roland Barthes noted that in spite of all its objectionable elements (he pointed out that any film that renders Sade real and fascism unreal is doubly wrong), this film should be defended because it refuses to allow us to redeem ourselves. It’s certainly the film in which Pasolini’s protest against the modern world finds its most extreme and anguished expression. Very hard to take, but in its own way an essential work. In Italian with subtitles. 117 min. (JR)
From the March 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Who needs another killer couple fleeing cross-country with cops in hot pursuit? Yet thanks to this 1998 Australian thriller’s aggressive and unnerving formal approach — jump cuts that hurtle us through the story like a needle skipping across a record and an inventive camera style that defamiliarizes characters as well as settings — the characters’ paranoia is translated into the slithery uncertainty of our own perceptions: this is the most interesting reworking of noir materials I’ve seen since After Dark, My Sweet and The Underneath. The creepy alienation of the lead couple (Frances O’Connor and Matt Day) from their victims and the world in general is eventually replicated in their own relationship, and variations on the same kind of mistrust crop up between the cops pursuing them and in just about every other cockeyed existential encounter in the film. Apart from some juicy character acting and striking uses of landscape, what makes this genre exercise by veteran director Bill Bennett special is the metaphysical climate produced by the style, transforming suspense into genuine dread. The outback is an eyeful too. 95 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 1994). — J.R.
The late River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney, and Sandra Bullock all play young country-music hopefuls in a touching romantic comedy-drama inspired by Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. For perverse reasons known only to itself, Paramount has elected to bury this movie, but the Music Box, bless it, has decided to open it anyway. It bears as little relation to the real Nashville as Altman’s 1975 feature, but director Peter Bogdanovich, the talented cast, and the credited (Carol Heikkinen) and uncredited screenwriters (Bogdanovich, cast members, and Pump Up the Volume‘s Allan Moyle) are so busy conjuring up a charming world of their own that I certainly didn’t mind. Mathis and Bullock are especially good, and Phoenix and Mulroney do a fair job of playing out a jealousy-prone friendship as if they were Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. With Trisha Yearwood. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 21 through 27.
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 493). — J.R.
Land that Time Forgot, The
Great Britain, 1974
Director: Kevin Connor
A canister is tossed into the sea and discovered on the coast of Land’s End, containing a manuscript by the American Bowen Tyler which relates the following story: 1916. A British supply ship is sunk by a German submarine; the survivors include Bowen, biologist Lisa Clayton and a few members of the crew. Together they take over the submarine from Captain von Schoenvorts and Dietz and head for the U.S., but lose their way after their radio is destroyed in an attack by a British warship and their compass rigged by von Schoenvorts; Bowen orders the sinking of a German supply ship, only to discover that their last source of rations is destroyed in the process. Finally coming upon an island with an inhospitable coastline surrounded by icebergs — identified by von Schoenvorts as the legendary Caprona — they find an underground river and Bowen charts their path to dry land.
There they discover a prehistoric world occupied by dangerous beasts, early evolutionary forms of man, and a variety of curious life-forms in the river. They capture a primitive man who calls himself Ahm, conveys to them in signs that Caprona has large deposits of oil — needed for the submarine in order to leave the island — and reluctantly takes them north to the spot; on the way, after they are attacked by the Sto-Lu and encounter other, progressively more ‘developed’ tribes of ape-men, Ahm is killed and carried off by a pterodactyl. Read more
These questions were sent by Maya Bogovejic on April 17 for her Eastern European, online film journal Camera Lucida. — J.R.
1. How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected your creative work/project/film (in its different phases)?
I’m troubled as well as delighted by the fact that the pandemic has been good for my web site, the center of my creative activities, insofar as more people currently visit this site every day. But what does it mean to say that anything that’s bad for humanity can be good for something else? Surely this must be the ultimate logic of capitalism — the same logic as saying that Donald Trump is “good” for “television” (meaning, I suppose, the few billionaires who control television) but “bad” for “America” (meaning far more than a few of the people living in the U.S.)
All this means that the Coronavirus pandemic is forcing to the surface contradictions, inequalities, and injustices that have been around for some time but were much easier to ignore or rationalize when the state of things was simply “business as usual”.
2. How damaging (long-lasting…) will the consequences be for film art, film festivals, cinemas, coproductions, film centres, various film events…?
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1992). — J.R.
Now we all know what German expressionist is: extended chunks of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (recast with John Malkovich and Mia Farrow) and The Magician (recast with Kenneth Mars and Woody Allen), Nosferatu’s pointed ears, the dull center framing of any Woody Allen movie (no diagonals or tilted angles, please), lots of kvetching with New York accents, central-casting prostitutes played by guest stars (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates), reams of dialogue we’ve all heard before in countless other movies, a strangler lurking in dank cobblestone alleyways, the opening passage of Kafka’s The Trial (who needs to read any further?), music by Kurt Weill, and, to top it off, shadows, silhouettes, and fog filmed in black and white. In short, Woody Allen’s feeblest semicomedy and postmodernist pastiche since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, bravely forsaking the streets of Manhattan for the soundstages of Astoria, explores the dark night of the soul with lots of famous people. With Michael Kirby, Donald Pleasence, Philip Bosco, Kate Nelligan, Julie Kavner, John Cusack, Madonna (for a minute or two), and others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten. You’ll forget them, too. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 1994). — J.R.
Robert Redford’s best and richest directorial effort (1994, 130 min.) unpacks the TV quiz show scandal of the late 50s, when glamorous intellectual Charles Van Doren, star contestant on the quiz show Twenty-One, belatedly confessed that he’d been fed all the questions in advance. As played by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), Van Doren is lamentably not much more than a shallow icon (though Paul Attanasio’s script works overtime making him appear sympathetic), stripped of the real-life ambiguities and hidden depths that were apparent to everyone who followed the story at the time. Despite these and other predictable simplifications, the story is allowed to retain much of its resonance and suggestiveness — as an instance of ethnic and class conflict as well as a landmark in media bamboozlement — and even some of the network and corporate culprits in the original fraud are singled out and named. Rob Morrow is especially good as Richard N. Goodwin, the feisty and ambitious House subcommittee member who helped to uncover the scandal, even though it meant fingering a man he admired (though the film, based on a chapter in Goodwin’s book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, exaggerates Goodwin’s role in the investigation), and John Turturro is effective as Herb Stempel, another Twenty-One contestant whose disgruntlement as an involuntary loser on the show was crucial in bringing Van Doren down. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1993). — J.R.
Some of my colleagues criticized this Philip Kaufman cop movie for softening the anti-Japanese feeling of the Michael Crichton novel it adapts — for coming down on corporate capitalism in general more than Japanese capitalism in particular, and diluting or at least complicating the racial implications by making the principal hero black instead of white. But I found it pretty entertaining, as well as provocative in some of its comments about contemporary life. Just about everyone — including Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery as a couple of LA cops uncovering a business conspiracy while investigating a murder — turns out to be somewhat corrupt, and the Connery character’s pithy explanations for the cultural and behavioral differences between the Japanese and American characters help to ameliorate some of the traces of xenophobia that remain. I’d rather see Kaufman upgrading the hackwork of Crichton than degrading the good work of Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). While most of the opportunities to make this a first-rate thriller are wasted, it’s still a pretty good second-rater. Written by Kaufman, Crichton, and Michael Backes; with Harvey Keitel, Cary-Horoyuki Tagawa, Mako, Ray Wise, and Tia Carrere. Read more
From the May 27, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Kira Muratova’s flaky 1978 feature, said to be her favorite, also goes by the title Understanding Life, but as often happens with her movies, appreciation ultimately triumphs over understanding. A loosely plotted comedy about a romantic triangle, set in and around a rural wasteland, it alternates between silence and sound, stopping and starting, with the cheekiness of 60s Godard. The relative chaos of the construction-site location, like the ones in Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ivan and Aerograd, is what Muratova seems to like most about this. As usual with her movies, the actors — including regulars Nina Ruslanova and Sergei Popov — are wonderful. In Russian with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)