Monthly Archives: May 2020

Social Criticism

From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 1988). — J.R.

COLORS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Dennis Hopper

Written by Michael Schiffer and Richard Dilello

With Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Maria Conchita Alonso, Randy Brooks, Grand Bush, Don Cheadle, Glenn Plummer, and Rudy Ramos.

REPENTANCE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze

Written by Nana Djanelidze, Tengiz Abuladze, and Rezo Kveselava

With Avtandil Makharadze, Zeinab Botsvadze, Ketevan Abuladze, Edisher Giorgobiani, Kakhi Kavsadze, Iya Ninidze, and Merab Ninidze.

For several weeks now, I’ve been trying to get a fix on what irritates me so much about Colors. Seeing it again recently, and then seeing Repentance for the first time the next day, a few hours before I started this review, gave me the beginning of an answer, and it isn’t a pretty one. If these films can be said to represent what “social criticism” currently means in the respective cultures of the U.S. and the Soviet Union — and, after a certain amount of boiling and scraping, I think that they can — then it seems to me we’re in trouble.

It’s been estimated that over 60 million Russians have already seen Repentance, the most prominent of all the belated, post-glasnost Soviet releases — scripted in 1981-82, filmed in 1984, and apparently shelved for only two years prior to the thaw. Read more

Oh Rosalinda!

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.

ohrosalinda

oh-rosalinda

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger transfer the plot of Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus to postwar Vienna for a 1955 musical filmed in Technicolor and ‘Scope. Not one of their best movies (cf The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death), but it’s certainly an engaging mannerist oddity that calls to mind such contemporary cross-references in delirium as Frank Tashlin and Vincente Minnelli, and the cast — Anton Walbrook, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, Dennis Price, and Ludmilla Tcherina — is occasionally as enterprising as the candy-box decor. (JR)

Oh_Rosalinda Read more

Prisoners of War

This appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Bitter Victory

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Written by Rene Hardy, Ray, and Gavin Lambert

With Richard Burton, Curt Jurgens, Ruth Roman, Raymond Pellegrin, Anthony Bushell, Andrew Crawford, Nigel Green, and Christopher Lee.

Jane Brand: What can I say to him?

Captain James Leith: Tell him all the things that women have always said to the men before they go to the wars. Tell him he’s a hero. Tell him he’s a good man. Tell him you’ll be waiting for him when he comes back. Tell him he’ll be making history. Bitter Victory

This week, as part of its series devoted to war films, the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a restored version of Nicholas Ray’s little-known masterpiece Bitter Victory—a powerful, albeit flawed, black-and-white CinemaScope feature set mainly in Libya during World War II. This 1957 film offers a radical reflection on war, and its relevance to the current war in Iraq goes beyond the desert settings and references to antiquity.

Many films are regarded as antiwar, including ones that proceed from antithetical premises; in the 60s a popular revival house in Manhattan liked to run a double bill of Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory. Read more

Two Books about Otto Preminger

From Cineaste, Summer 2008 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 3). It’s gratifying that Such Good Friends has finally come out on DVD. — J.R.

The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger

by Chris Fujiwara. New York: Faber & Faber, 479 pp., illus. Hardcover: $35.00.

 

Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King

by Foster Hirsch. New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 573 pp., illus. Hardcover: $35.00

 

Few film directors resist critical biography as much as Otto Preminger, given all the puzzling and intractable mismatches one encounters as soon as one tries to reconcile his very public life with his no less private body of work as an auteur. This is a difficulty acknowledged in the title and subtitle of Chris Fujiwara’s book, and one he essentially tries to resolve by splitting most of his chapters into two sections. But the overall disassociation of Preminger’s life and work, even though it’s addressed by this structure, still becomes a kind of structuring absence that haunts this biography as well as Foster Hirsch’s, which tries to integrate the two concerns more conventionally. Read more

Skidoo

Otto Preminger took LSD before making this demented, vulgar 1968 screwball musical about hippies taking over the world, in which his own trip is re-created as Jackie Gleason’s. This isn’t exactly funny, and it’s the last Preminger film one would pick to convince a skeptic of his talent, but it’s fascinating throughout. The satirical plot pits hippies against corporate gangsters lorded over by someone named God (Groucho Marx in his last film performance), whom Gleason used to work for. The cast mainly consists of aging TV stars (Gleason, Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang) and Hollywood has-beens (Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Fred Clark). Preminger’s celebration of the counterculture may be peculiar (Channing serves as the major go-between and, oddly enough, the sanest character), but it’s certainly sincere. Don’t miss the hallucinatory Garbage Can Ballet — the apotheosis of this cheerful garbage can of a movie — and the sung credits at the end. 98 min. (JR)

Read more

The Moon Is Blue

From the January 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

TheMoonisBlue

In the first of his independent features as producer-director (1953) Otto Preminger adapts his most successful stage production, a light romantic comedy by F. Hugh Herbert that ran for over 900 performances. Released without production code approval and condemned by the Legion of Decency for its use of such taboo phrases as virgin, seduce, and pregnant, none of which bothered anyone in the stage run, it’s regarded today mainly as a curio. Yet for all the movie’s staginess and datedness, it’s a more personal and ambiguous work than it initially appears to be. Architect William Holden ogles and picks up professional virgin Maggie McNamara at the Empire State Building and brings her back to his apartment, where his next-door neighbors — his former girlfriend (Dawn Addams) and her playboy father (David Niven) — quickly involve this potential couple in various intrigues. A certain prurient (as well as analytical) curiosity in Preminger’s distanced and mobile camera style makes McNamara seem slightly corrupt and Holden and Niven slightly innocent, despite all appearances to the contrary, and the sour aftertaste to this frothy material is an important part of what keeps the picture interesting. Read more

Our Girl in Burma

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1995). — J.R.

Beyond Rangoon

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John Boorman

Written by Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein

With Patricia Arquette, U Aung Ko, Frances McDormand, Spalding Gray, Tiara Jacquelina, and Victor Slezak.

Reviewing Salvador Dali’s autobiography half a century ago, George Orwell wrote that Dali “grew up in the corrupt world of the 1920s, when sophistication was immensely widespread and every European capital swarmed with aristocrats and rentiers who had given up sport and politics and taken to patronizing the arts. If you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back.” Offended by the sort of sophistication that he associated with mindless tolerance, Orwell recorded his own puritanical outrage at the brutal shenanigans of Dali and his apologists: “It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of benefit of clergy. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘art’ and everything is OK. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are OK; kicking little girls on the head is OK; even a film like L’age d’or is OK.”

Unfortunately, Orwell hadn’t seen Buñuel’s 1930 masterpiece and had been misinformed about it; it’s subsequently been demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, Dali had little to do with it. Read more

The Violent Years

From The Movie No. 71, 1981. — J.R.

From Psycho and Spartacus (both 1960) to The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider (both 1969), the Sixties might be regarded as the period when screen violence gained a new aesthetic self-consciousness and something approaching academic respectability, at least in the public mind. To put it somewhat differently, the contemporary spectator of 1960, shocked by the brutal shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho as an event — without observing that it was a composite film effect created by several dozen rapidly cut shots –- would have been much likelier to notice, in 1969, the use of slow motion in the depiction of several dozen violent deaths in The Wild Bunch.

The key film document of the decade, endlessly scrutinized and discussed, was not an entertainment feature at all, but the record of an amateur film-maker named Abe Zapruder of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963; the close analysis to which this short length of film was subjected was characteristic of a changing attitude towards the medium as a whole.

In the Sixties many established cultural, social, and political values were radically thrown into question, at the same time that the media -– including television and pop music as well as cinema — were becoming closely examined in their own right. Read more

Roeg’s Gallery

R.I.P. Nicolas Roeg, 1928-2018. From The Movie no. 85, 1981.— J.R.

It is surely more than just a coincidence that director Nicolas Roeg has used leading pop stars and rock personalities in three of his five features to date. The sheer satanic presences of Mick Jagger in Performance (1970), of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and, to a lesser extent, Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (1980), all have something slightly magical about them — as if they held the implicit promise that unusual and outsized events were going to take place around and, in large measure, because of them. Boldly delineated in each case like the demonic princes of dark impulses, they are offered as guides and portals into the decadent fantasies which these films often traffic in. As Roeg told critic Harlan Kennedy in an interview:

What I find interesting about singers is that they all have the qualities of performers but they’re untouched in terms of acting. They’re not from the New York school of this or that: they’re not from the London theatre….So many actors have lost their intent, their beginnings. They’re not this travelling group of players that one evening is a king, another evening is a beggar. Read more

He’s So Heavy [COLD HEAVEN]

From the August 14, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

COLD HEAVEN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Theresa Russell, Mark Harmon, James Russo, Talia Shire, Will Patton, Richard Bradford, and Julie Carmen.

The sexy, volatile cinema of Nicolas Roeg might be said to operate under a kind of curse. Born in London in 1928, Roeg entered movies as a clapper boy at the age of 22 but didn’t become a cinematographer until his early 30s. After shooting such interesting films in the 60s as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, and Petulia, he directed his powerful and still-dangerous Performance (in collaboration with Donald Cammell) in 1968, but then had to wait two years for Warner Brothers to release it.

After Roeg’s first solo directorial effort (Walkabout, 1971) came his first and only commercial hit (Don’t Look Now, 1973). He followed that up with two controversial cult items (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, 1979). In 1982 he made a feature (Eureka) that had a very limited release. Next in line was Insignificance (1985), then another feature with virtually no theatrical life in the United States (Castaway, 1986), then a third limited release (Track 29, 1988). Read more

Desperate Measures [OUT OF SIGHT & THE BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1998). — J.R.

/wp-content/uploads/1998/07/Out+of+Sight+1998+Jennifer+Lopez+George+Clooney+pic+1.jpg

Out of Sight

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Scott Frank

With George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, and Catherine Keener.

The Brigands: Chapter VII

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Otar Iosseliani

With Amiran Amiranachvili, Alexi Djakeli, Dato Gogibedachvili, Guio Tzintsadze, Nino Ordjonikidze, Keti Kapanadze, and Nino Kartsivadze.

Which would you rather see? A Hollywood thriller with hot stars whose director is so alienated from his material that he’s reduced to a kind of ingenious doodling while his characters disintegrate? Or a witty, despairing French-Russian-Italian-Swiss art movie set in 16th-century Georgia, Stalinist Georgia, contemporary Georgia, and contemporary Paris, whose writer-director is so much in command of his materials that he can plant the same actors in all four settings yet provide a seamless continuity?

My question is mainly rhetorical because it’s already been decided for most people reading this. Out of Sight, a major Universal release written by Scott Frank and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is playing all over town and will be around for weeks; The Brigands: Chapter VII, written and directed by Otar Iosseliani, doesn’t even have a U.S.

Read more

Two Deaths

From the October 1, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

TwoDeaths

I don’t know anything about the novel this Nicolas Roeg made-for-BBC film is drawn from — Stephen Dobyns’s The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, adapted by Roeg’s longtime collaborator Allan Scott — but its mixture of metaphysical fireside tale and kinky guilt tripping reminds me of Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva. During a bloody 1989 student uprising in an unnamed country that seems to be somewhere in eastern Europe, a successful doctor (Michael Gambon) is holding his annual dinner for three of his former schoolmates and recounting in flashbacks the story of his sexual obsession with a schoolteacher (Sonia Braga) who despises him but now lives with him as his slave. As his three male guests relate their own sexual secrets and soldiers and police periodically break into the house, the pattern of an after-dinner parable laced with vague allegorical undertones gradually takes shape. The results are engaging (if unpleasant) as story-telling — and alternately striking and pretentious as only a Roeg film can be. With Patrick Malahide, Ion Caramitru, Nickolas Grace, and John Shrapnel. (JR)

Two-Deaths-1995-1 Read more

Crass Consciousness [EDTV]

From the Chicago Reader (March 26, 1999). — J.R.

EDtv

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

With Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Hurley.

I tend to like Ron Howard movies. They’re usually energetic, Capra-like popular entertainments that respect the audience — not a common virtue these days. Howard is one of the few remaining filmmakers from the Hollywood studio tradition who can be counted on to offer honest diversion without making any undue claims for what he’s doing — and I include everything from Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift to Splash and Cocoon, from Gung Ho and Parenthood to the underrated Far and Away, Backdraft, and The Paper, and even dubious efforts such as Willow and Apollo 13. Even when his films are satirical, as Gung Ho is, they don’t offer their commentaries from the top of soap boxes, and their messages are sweet tempered rather than caustic.

EDtv conforms to this pattern, though it runs up against a current conundrum — how can one criticize the excesses of the contemporary media without blaming the audience? Read more

Pushing Tin

From the Chicago Reader (April 20, 1999). — J.R.

Though this comedy-drama about a macho feud between two New York air-traffic controllers (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) is never entirely believable, it’s consistently lively, offbeat, and unpredictable, suggesting at times the improbable fusion of Howard Hawks and Sigmund Freud. Inspired by an article by Darcy Frey in the New York Times Magazine, the screenplay by brothers Glen and Les Charles (creators of the TV show Cheers) piles hyperbole on top of frenzy in spelling out the heroes’ frenetic lifestyle. In particular, it focuses on the putative wife swapping (involving Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie) that emerges from the rivalry. Cusack may be called upon to hog too much of the limelight, if only because the story is mainly told from his point of view, but director Mike Newell’s flair for mixing and matching his entire cast seldom falters. (JR)

Read more

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

From the Chicago Reader (May 1999). — J.R.

Not bad for a toy commercial, and the SF settings, however familiar, are even more impressive than the gadgets and beasties. The casualties are narrative momentum (at least compared to episode four) and the actors — Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park — who are stilted and humorless but can’t be blamed, since George Lucas’s mind was on the digital effects. (An overgrown Jamaican reptile of indeterminate gender named Jar Jar Binks has been created specifically to tell the audience when it’s OK to laugh.) At great expense, Lucas has finally succeeded in duplicating his low-budget models (mainly serials and westerns of the 50s) in emotional range as well as in action. The digital effects help him realize this sincere aim, but the campy whiffs of pseudoprofundity are strictly analogical and exclusively the writer-director’s, and in a way they’re every bit as charming as the simplicity. PG, 133 min. (JR)

Read more