Monthly Archives: May 2020

Doses of Reality

This originally appeared in the August 15, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Gatekeeper — produced, directed, and written by someone you’ve never heard of, with a cast that’s equally unknown — is a realistic, no-nonsense independent feature about Mexican immigrants enslaved just after crossing illegally into the U.S. Masked and Anonymous — a Bob Dylan vehicle packed with stars, directed by a sitcom veteran, and produced by the BBC — is a fantasy about a legendary singer giving a benefit concert for wounded counterrevolutionaries in a slum-infested city where the country’s dictator is dying.

These movies have little in common, apart from being grim commentaries on the corruptions of the American dream that use impoverished southern California locations. Yet I had the same sensation after seeing each of them: I felt I’d just received a jolt of contemporary reality, something I rarely can say about commercial movies nowadays.

Even if only indirectly, both movies have something to say about global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer, government and crime, the torrents of spam flooding e-mail accounts, the relentless aggression of telemarketing, the political chaos in Iraq and other places (including California), the misery of the poor and homeless, and the almost random casualties arising from heat-crazed and trigger-happy cops and soldiers surrounded by people who despise them. Read more

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 1996). — J.R.

This eccentric and soulful anarcho-leftist utopian fantasy is probably the most underrated of all Depression musicals. Directed by Lewis Milestone in 1933 from a script by Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman and with a score by Rodgers and Hart that features rhyming couplets, the film stars Al Jolson as a Central Park hobo who actually likes being homeless — until he falls in love with an amnesia victim (Madge Evans) who’s a former mistress of the mayor (Frank Morgan) and has to get a job to support her. The overall conception may owe something to Chaplin’s City Lights, released two years earlier, but the remarkable editing and mise en scene show Milestone at his most inspired and inventive. (There’s a parodic Eisensteinian montage cut to the syllables of “America” that has to be seen to be believed, and a tracking shot past muttering customers in a spacious bank is equally brilliant and subversive.) Harry Langdon is memorable as a Trotskyite who sternly lectures the hero, and Richard Day’s deco art direction is striking. Jolson’s most memorable numbers include the title tune and “You Are Too Beautiful,” one of the loveliest of all Rodgers and Hart ballads. Read more

Masked and Anonymous

From the Chicago Reader (August 15, 2003). — J.R.

Masked&Anonymous

masked-and-anonymous

“Rene Fontaine” and “Sergei Petrov,” the credited screenwriters of this mannerist fantasy, are pseudonyms for star Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles, a veteran of Seinfeld. In fact, every character talks like Dylan, and his character, a legendary singer called Jack Fate who turns up between prison terms to perform a benefit concert, is a fanciful but recognizable version of his own persona. Set in a contemporary America that suggests an endless skid row, with such Latin American trimmings as an ongoing civil war and a dying dictator whose likeness hangs everywhere, this is at once a spin on Dylan’s mythology, an excuse to feature as many of his songs as possible, and an unblinking look at American greed, corruption, and self-absorption. And for all its pretensions and avant-garde narrative dislocations, the star-studded cast — including Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, and many others in cameos — keeps this buzzing. 106 min. Music Box.

masked and anonymous

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night

From the August 15, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play — written in 1940, but published only posthumously, in 1956 — is a frankly autobiographical look at his own doomed family, set in 1912, when he was in his early 20s. Sidney Lumet rightly retained the entire text for this 1962 black-and-white feature, which runs for 174 minutes. It’s as close to a definitive version as we’re likely to get, and it includes what is probably Katharine Hepburn’s greatest noncomic performance. The other three actors — Ralph Richardson as the father, Jason Robards Jr. as the older son, and Dean Stockwell as the younger son (O’Neill’s self-portrait) — keep pace with her every step of the way. (JR)

Long-Days-Journey-Into-Night-Family-Scene-660x330 Read more

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (catalogue entry)

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato, June 24 through July 4, 2015. — J.R.

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE

The-Man-from-Laramie

USA, 1955

T. it.: L’ Uomo di Laramie.  Sog.; Thomas T. Flynn. Scen.: Philip Yordan, Frank Burt. F. (CinemaScope): Charles Lang.  M.: William Lyon.  Mus.: George Duning, Lester Lee. Int.: James Stewart (Will Lockhart),  Arthur Kennedy (Vic Hansbro),  Donald Crisp (Alec Waggoman), Cathy O’Donnell (Barbara Waggoman),  Alex Nicol (Dave Waggoman), Aline MacMahon (Kate Canady)., Wallace Ford. Prod.: William Goetz Productions.

TheManfromLaramie-town

“Anthony Mann brought a touch of Oedipus Rex to almost everything he did—he was fascinated by families exploding from the inside—but in this 1955 western it’s more than a touch: he’s clearly aiming for classical resonance. Yet the film is never pretentious, perhaps because Mann is able to create characters complex enough to support the grand emotions, and because the landscape—animistic, enveloping—becomes mythic in his wide-screen framing. It’s one of Mann’s cleanest, clearest films, constructing an elaborate but ultimately lucid network of character relationships, all of them perverse. With James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and Donald Crisp. 104 min.” (Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader)

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This is the eight and last of Anthony Mann’s features starring James Stewart, made over a mere six years (1950-1955)—a fascinating body of work that, like Alfred Hitchcock’s uses of Stewart over roughly the same period (in Rope, Rear Window, and Vertigo) as well Cecil B. Read more

Trying to Have Some Fun (QUILLS, SMOKING, & NO SMOKING)

From the December 15, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Quills

***

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Doug Wright

With Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, and Amelia Warner.

Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma.

No Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnes Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.

Quills is an American adaptation of an American play about the famous 18th-century French libertine the Marquis de Sade, starring Australian, English, and American actors. It is also, in part, an unacknowledged mainstreaming of a more intellectual German play that became famous in the mid-1960s because of an exciting and inventive staging by avant-garde English director Peter Brook — Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, popularly known as Marat/Sade. (Brook’s 1966 film adaptation of this intensely theatrical play is a pale shadow of the original.)

Smoking and No Smoking — not a double bill but a pair of interactive features that can be seen in either order, both playing at Facets Multimedia Center this week — are French adaptations of a cycle of eight mainly comic English plays by Alan Ayckbourn. Read more

Improving Mr. Welles

From Sight and Sound (October 1992). –- J.R.

Most of the American press has been all too happy to declare the new version of Orson Welles’ Othello as “expertly restored”, as Vincent Canby put it in the New York Times. But restored from what and to what? Even rudimentary information about the film’s original form is not easy to come by in the U.S., where 0thello brought in only $40,000 on its belated first release in 1955 and has been screened only sporadically since. Mutatis mutandis, the acclaim that has greeted the restoration recalls the unqualified press endorsements of Francis Coppola’s presentation of Abel Gance’s ‘complete’ Napoléon at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, in a version that eliminated an entire subplot so that the print wouldn’t run past midnight and jack up the theatre’s operating costs.

To make matters more complicated, two different versions of the ‘restored’ Othello have been presented to the public so far, although only the second of these is currently in circulation. The first, worked on in Chicago by a team headed by Michael Dawson and Arnie Saks, premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center late last year; I saw it several weeks afterwards at a private screening in Chicago. Read more

Unwarranted Heaviness (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING)

From the Chicago Reader (February 12, 1988). — J.R.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson, Pavel Landovsky, Donald Moffat, and Daniel Olbrychski.

Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.   — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The semibearable heaviness of Philip Kaufman, at least in his last three features — Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, and The Right Stuff — is largely a matter of an only half-disguised didactic impulse, a notion that he’s got something to teach us. For a filmmaker as commercial as Kaufman, this impulse becomes worrying chiefly because we emerge from his movies not knowing anything essential that we didn’t know before we went in. We’ve submitted ourselves to a certain intelligence, grandiosity, and slickness, and we may well have been entertained — Kaufman has undeniable craft as a storyteller — but it’s questionable whether we’re any wiser.

There’s nothing at all disgraceful about this. But the suggestion that we’re supposed to be getting something more than intelligent entertainment from a Kaufman film — which seems to hover over every frame like an admonition, almost a threat — leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste. Read more

Millers’ High Life

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1990). — J.R.

HENRY & JUNE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Philip and Rose Kaufman

With Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Maria de Medeiros, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey.

“There are larval thoughts not yet divorced from their dream content, thoughts which seem to slowly crystallize before your eyes, always precise but never tangible, never once arrested so as to be grasped by the mind. It is the opium world of woman’s physiological being, sort of a show put on inside the genito-urinary tract. There is not an ounce of man-made culture in it; everything related to the head is cut off. Time passes, but it is not clock time; nor is it poetic time such as men create in their passion. It is more like that aeonic time required for the creation of gems and precious metals; an embowelled sidereal time in which the female knows that she is superior to the male and will eventually swallow him up again. The effect is that of starlight carried over into day-time.”

This elegant huffing and puffing belongs to Henry Miller, writing about the journals of Anais Nin in a 1939 essay called “Un Etre Etoilique” (A Starlike Being), collected in The Cosmological Eye. Read more

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY

The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.

a-brighter-summer-day

A Brighter Summer Day was inspired by a true incident, a touchstone from Yang’s youth: the killing of a 14-year-old girl by a male high school student in Taipei on June 15, 1961. Yang frames the film with recitations over the radio of the names of students graduating from the same school in 1960 and ’61. The title comes from the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, phonetically transcribed by the hero’s sister so that a younger friend, Cat, can learn to sing them.

abrightersummerday-singer

This song is only one of many cherished artifacts belonging to the film’s characters that come from somewhere else. A samurai sword found by the hero, Si’r, in his family’s Japanese house becomes the murder weapon, and a tape recorder left by the American army in the 50s records Cat’s version of the Elvis song. An old radio that for most of the picture doesn’t work eventually broadcasts the list of graduating students. And a flashlight Si’r steals in the first extended scene from a film studio next to the school, where he periodically hides in the rafters to watch movies being shot, makes a fascinating progress through the film. Read more

Letter Never Sent

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 2001). — J.R.

Letter_Never_Sent

LetterNeverSent

Two years after his internationally famous The Cranes Are Flying and five years before his internationally scorned I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov directed this strange 1959 adventure story about four geologists (three men and one woman) hunting for diamonds in Siberia. The title letter is being written by the narrator to his wife in Moscow, and while the explorers eventually find their treasure, they have to endure forest fires and snowstorms as they struggle back toward civilization. Though shot on location and reportedly based on a true story, the film is distanced considerably from realism, at least in any conventional sense, by its exciting and volatile camera style and its metaphysical atmosphere (sparked in particular by one line of dialogue, Nature is taking revenge); they’re less delirious than in I Am Cuba but sufficiently ravishing to have brought charges of formalism against the filmmakers. Pictorially, the double exposures and silhouette effects recall some of the glories of silent cinema. in Russian with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)

letter-never-sent-helicopter-face-798x598 Read more

Scorn in the USA [RISING SUN]

From the Chicago Reader (August 13, 1993). — J.R.

RISING SUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Kaufman, Michael Crichton, and Michael Backes

With Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kevin Anderson, Mako, Ray Wise, Stan Egi, Stan Shaw, and Tia Carrere.

Before seeing Rising Sun and then reading the Michael Crichton thriller it’s based on, I happened to read four negative reviews of the movie, and was more than a little taken aback by them. Here are samples of what I found:

“Following the cut-and-dried police procedural structure of the book, cowriter and director Philip Kaufman has soft-pedaled the critique of Japanese behavior stateside, which may reduce justification for protests against the film, but also removes much of the material’s bite.” (Todd McCarthy, Variety)

“Trying to transcend the material, the director loses the novelist’s crude but compelling urgency.” (David Ansen, Newsweek)

“Crichton’s novel was largely powered by his animus against the Japanese business culture, and perversely, you miss his outrage.” (Richard Schickel, Time)

“Crichton, in his novel, was accused (with some justification) of Japan-bashing, but if his vision of Japanese executives as omnipotent control freaks had a racist tinge, it was also sinister fun. Read more

THE COMEDIAN (1957)

During my early teens, I watched Studio One fairly often, but Playhouse 90 went on too late for me to be able to watch it more than occasionally. So about two weeks prior to my 14th birthday, I missed The Comedian (1957), which I’ve just seen for the first time on a DVD compilation called The Golden Age of TV Drama — starring Michael Rooney in the title role as an abrasive, tyrannical TV  star, Mel Tormé as his weak-willed brother, Kim Hunter as the latter’s despairing wife, and Edmond O’Brien as the comedian’s harried scriptwriter, and powerfully directed by John Frankenheimer. (I initially thought that was Frankenheimer on the left in the publicity photo below, but a friend suggests that it’s more likely Edmond O’Brien.)

Frankenheimer was probably the only TV director in that period whom I recognized by name, and it was a name that I valued highly. (He shot his first film feature the same year, and by the time The Manchurian Candidate came out five years later, his auteurist stamp was already unmistakable—especially in his volatile way of doubling one’s view of the action via TV monitors, already apparent at the very beginning of The Comedian.) Read more

Scenes From A Mall

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1991). — J.R.

scenes-from-a-mall

A middle-aged couple (Woody Allen and Bette Midler) in southern California celebrating their 15th anniversary go to a shopping mall, and they proceed to decompose and recompose their relationship on the basis of various revelations. Although this only runs for about 90 minutes, it’s the emptiest and most long-winded movie Paul Mazursky (working here with his frequent cowriter Roger L. Simon) has ever made, a disappointingly steep descent after his Enemies, a Love Story. The characters never come to life, and restricting almost all of the action to a gigantic mall only makes the narrowness and boredom of the movie more obvious. Mazursky has returned with a vengeance to his special universe where the upper middle class is the only thing that exists, and this time he has absolutely nothing to say about it. (JR)

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The Saint of Fort Washington

From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 1994). — J.R.

THESAINTOFFORTWASHINGTON

It would appear that many of my colleagues have been trashing this powerful and moving look at friendship among the homeless in New York — directed by Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) from a script by Lyle Kessler (Orphans) and starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillon at their rare best — simply because of its subject matter and authenticity; apparently, contemporary man-made tragedies are inappropriate topics for the big screen, unlike ghosts, dinosaurs, mythical serial killers, and former holocausts. But if epic grandeur is what you’re looking for, this movie gives you glimpses of the Fort Washington Armory, which currently shelters 700 people nightly, that recall the famous shot of the Confederate wounded in Gone With the Wind, and if noir finality is your meat, this movie tells you things about New York’s potter’s field that easily might have found their way into Pickup on South Street. This isn’t a perfect movie, and it may occasionally err on the side of Dickensian sentiment, but I it has so much to say about the world we live in and says it with such grace, wit, and raw feeling that I recommend it without qualification. Read more