From the December 1, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
If you’ve ever wanted to bust Tom Cruise in the chops when he’s brandishing that self-infatuated, shit-eating grin — a desire even his hardiest fans must occasionally feel — then this is the movie for you. Cruise plays a Manhattan zillionaire who’s inherited a string of successful magazines; after screwing Cameron Diaz four times in one night (this is supposed to be the realistic part) he falls in love with another woman (Penelope Cruz) and winds up in an accident that leaves him disfigured like some character out of Victor Hugo. Director Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from Open Your Eyes (1997), a highly successful Spanish fantasy thriller by the talented Alejandro Amenabar, and while remaking a four-year-old film may seem silly, it perfectly fits the subject, remaking one’s life. Of course this version is much slicker, upgrading the original in some ways (if you prefer having everything spelled out) and overextending it in others (including the 130-minute running time); it reeks of unearned profundity, but I found it entertaining. With Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, and Noah Taylor; incidentally, Cruz played the same role in the Spanish film. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.
James Benning’s 1988 feature, a substantial letdown after his Landscape Suicide, charts the filmmaker’s involvement with Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Milwaukee policewoman who, despite her persistent claims of innocenc, was convicted of killing her husband’s first wife in the early 80s. (Her case led to articles in Cosmopolitan and People, in part because of her achievements in prison reform while serving a life term.) Although several commentators have compared this film to The Thin Blue Line, there are many crucial differences: Benning’s friendship with his subject, a more extensive use of actors, and Benning’s background as an experimental filmmaker who generally uses narrative only in a skeletal and simplified form. (Bembenek’s own voice — like Benning’s — is used throughout, but an actress plays her on-screen.) Perhaps the principal problem lies in Benning’s failure to set down all the relevant facts of the case in an easily digestible form; he chooses, rather, to introduce them out of chronological sequence. In addition, his own semi-maudlin confessional letters, which are read offscreen (along with Bembenek’s terser ones), keep clouding the various issues raised. As in Benning’s earlier and better films, long takes that focus on midwestern landscapes are often employed, but without the sense of mystery and provocation that they usually have. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 508). Many years later, I revised and expanded this review for an essay commissioned by the Masters of Cinema DVD of Spione, called “Inside the Vault”. –- J.R.
Spione (The Spy)
Germany, 1928Director: Fritz Lang
An unidentified European country. After two treaties are stolen by a spy ring, and all the best agents of Burton Jason, head of the Sectet Service, have been killed while attempting to recover them, Jason summons detective Donald Tremaine, who arrives disguised as a tramp. The master-mind of the thefts, Haghi — an apparent cripple who runs a bank and has built a spy ring mainly out of criminals he has secretly sprung from prison — assigns Sonia to find out from Tremaine when a new treaty is to be signed. Rushing into Tremaine’s hotel suite after shooting a man whom she claims attacked her (and who survives thanks to a wallet in his breast pocket which stops the bullet), she gets Tremaine to hide her and quickly charms him. Charmed herself, she begs Haghi to take her off the case, but he forces her to write Tremaine a letter, which he dictates. Tremaine comes to her house and they make a date for dinner, but she is called away from the restaurant by Haghi. Read more
From the April 1, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
A daring experiment that failed (1975), this direct-sound musical set in the 30s — with Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete doing what they can (as singers and dancers) with and to Cole Porter — is probably Peter Bogdanovich’s worst film, but it’s perversely fascinating for its art-deco trimmings as well as its rather frightening coldness. I suspect that what makes it so hard to take is less its awkwardness as a musical (which could theoretically carry a certain charm) than its shocking sense of class snobbery and upper-class entitlement, which played a lesser role in Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and which registers here as an eccentric misreading of Lubitsch. Ironically, this was made when Bogdanovich was at the height of his power as a studio director, before he developed the craft and sensitivity that characterize some of his later work. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1989). — J.R.
Souleymane Cisse’s extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing fantasy is set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) long before it was invaded by Morocco in the 16th century. A young man (Issiaka Kane) sets out to discover the mysteries of nature (or komo, the science of the gods) with the help of his mother and uncle, but his jealous and spiteful father contrives to prevent him from deciphering the sacred rites and tries to kill him. In the course of a heroic and magical journey, the hero masters the Bambara initiation rites, takes over the throne, and ultimately confronts the magic of his father. Apart from creating a dense and exciting universe that should make George Lucas green with envy, Cisse has shot breathtaking images in Fujicolor and has accompanied his story with a spare, hypnotic, percussive score. Conceivably the greatest African film ever made, sublimely mixing the matter-of-fact with the uncanny, this wondrous work provides an ideal introduction to a filmmaker who, next to Ousmane Sembene, is probably Africa’s greatest director. Not to be missed. Winner of the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 6, 7:30; Saturday, January 7, 4:00 and 7:30; and Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, January 8, 10, and 12, 6:00; 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1989). — J.R.
The conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s loose trilogy (preceded by L’Avventura and La Notte), this 1961 film is conceivably the best in Antonioni’s career, but significantly it has the least consequential plot. A sometime translator (Monica Vitti) recovering from an unhappy love affair briefly links up with a stockbroker (Alain Delon) in Rome, though the stunning final montage sequence — perhaps the most powerful thing Antonioni has ever done — does without these characters entirely. Alternately an essay and a prose poem about the contemporary world in which the love story figures as one of many motifs, this is remarkable both for its visual/atmospheric richness and its polyphonic and polyrhythmic mise en scene (Antonioni’s handling of crowds at the Roman stock exchange is never less than amazing). In Italian with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1989). — J.R.
The all-time best Rudy Vallee performance is as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker in this brilliant, simultaneously tender and scalding 1942 screwball comedy by Preston Sturges — one 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 getting 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), her European boyfriend of obscure national origins (Sig Arno), and many others. Hackensacker may be the closest thing to a 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; not to be missed. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by Virginia Keller. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, February 14, 6:00, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.
Writer Leonard Gershe, director Stanley Donen, and producer Roger Edens take on French existentialism in this colorful and sumptuous 1957 musical, set largely in Paris and starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, with a dreamy Gershwin score. Although the anti-intellectualism gets thick in spots, the visuals are consistently stylish. Astaire is a fashion photographer (Richard Avedon supervised his photo sessions), Hepburn a Greenwich Village bookworm transformed into a model (clothes by Givenchy), and Kay Thompson plays their fashion editor. The film’s sophistication is compromised by the rather dumb plot, but some of the numbers — especially “Think Pink” and “Bonjour Paris” — are standouts. 103 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1994). — J.R.
Writer-director Ron Shelton’s fourth feature (Bull Durham, Blaze, and White Men Can’t Jump are the other three) is a shambles, but it’s such a potent and courageous wreck of a movie that it’s worth more than most successes. Only obliquely a sports story, and missing most of Shelton’s usual humor, this is a troubled portrait of an odious Ty Cobb, possibly the greatest of all baseball players, from the vantage point of the last year or so of his life. Based on the recollections of Al Stump, who ghosted Cobb’s self-serving and unreliable 1961 autobiography, the film fails to make either Cobb or Stump fully believable, despite a towering performance by Tommy Lee Jones as the former and a perfectly adequate one by Robert Wuhl as the latter. In part that’s because Shelton, hampered in his efforts to shift between the two characters’ points of view, is actually after bigger game: a critique of the American success ethic and the preference for legend over truth. (In many ways, the story has more in common with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than with any other sports biopic.) The sheer, dark unpleasantness of what emerges is such that at certain moments even Shelton backs away from it and tries to wring out a sentimental tear or two (along with a belated Freudian revelation). Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 1990). — J.R.
JESUS OF MONTREAL
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Denys Arcand
With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Remy Girard, Robert Lepage, Gilles Pelletier, Yves Jacques, and Arcand.
It must have been about 30 years ago that I saw Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die, a popular art-house movie at the time and one of my first foreign films. Dassin, an American expatriate chased to Europe by the Hollywood blacklist, was a highly skilled film noir director whose best efforts included The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. He Who Must Die, set on Crete in 1921, was a French picture based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Greek Passion, concerning the performers in a passion play whose theatrical roles take over their real lives as they suffer from Turkish oppression; the theme was that if Christ came back today, he would be crucified all over again.
I was a teenager at the time, and being none too versed in what was considered sophisticated in film in 1959, I was moved to tears. This was at a time when the French New Wave had barely made a ripple in the American consciousness, and shortly before Dassin’s film was ridiculed by critics I admired, like Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald, as the acme of arty pretension. Read more
From the December 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An exasperating demonstration of what’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood and what’s wrong with contemporary American election campaigns, pitched in the form of a cutesy romantic comedy that should set your teeth on edge. Loosely inspired by the well-publicized romance of Mary Matalin and James Carville during the 1992 presidential election, with Ron Underwood (City Slickers) directing a script by Robert King (Clean Slate), this throws together a Republican speechwriter (Michael Keaton) and a Democratic speechwriter (coproducer Geena Davis) during a senatorial campaign in New Mexico and watches their love blossom as they proceed to work competitively. The movie’s smart enough to offer a jaded portrait of the way such campaigns operate, but the hackneyed love story repeatedly relegates it to the back burner, and matters weren’t helped by test-market previews that led to a new and exceptionally stupid feel good ending. Ultimately, for all its fancy footwork, this movie winds up being even sicker than what it’s looking at. With Christopher Reeve, Bonnie Bedelia, Ernie Hudson, Charles Martin Smith, and Gailard Sartain (1994). (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). Perhaps my biggest error in this review is my assumption that all the leading characters in Metropolitan are male. — J.R.
The second comedy feature (1994) of writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), who shares with Eric Rohmer a talent for literate and witty dialogue and a fascination with photogenic young women but has a somewhat less confident sense of milieu and story construction. As in Metropolitan, the leading characters and principal source of amusement are wealthy, self-absorbed, and virtually interchangeable American males (in this case a salesman and his cousin, a naval officer), though here they’re transplanted to the Barcelona jet-set nightclub scene, where they explain to their girlfriends and each other (as well as to the audience) how misinformed the Spanish are about the U.S. Considering how successfully they seem to colonialize all the young Spanish women in sight, regarded by heroes and movie alike as obliging pieces of furniture, one subtext seems to be that Europeans are basically first-draft Americans hungrily awaiting stateside revision. Still, this is fairly amusing stuff — brittle, fresh, and impudent –if you can stomach all the upscale arrogance. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino, Pep Munne, and Hellena Schmied. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.
A beautiful and powerful spiritual epic from South Korea (1991), directed by Im Kwon-taek — Korea’s most famous and popular film director, whose filmography runs to 80-odd titles — from an ambitious script by Kim Yong-ok. Covering roughly four decades from the 1860s through the 1890s, the film charts the growth and eventual stamping out of Kae Byok (from which comes the film’s original Korean title), a radically humanist and egalitarian religious sect founded on the belief that God is everyone and everything; in particular it focuses on the sect’s charismatic leader, Hae-Wol (very effectively played by Lee Duk-hwa), who was born a poor farmer, and his three wives. Though closer in some ways to a historical pageant than a conventional narrative, with numerous printed titles inserted at the beginning of various episodes to explain their historical contexts, the film is anything but slow or ponderous (unlike Wyatt Earp, for instance). Composed mainly of short, economical scenes, flurries of action against breathtaking landscapes that stunningly reflect the seasons, this may make more intoxicating use of color than any Asian film I’ve seen since Mizoguchi’s New Tales of the Taira Clan, and the story itself has an epic grandeur worthy of Mizoguchi. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.
The second installment (1992) in Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” centers on a young Parisian woman, aptly called Felicie, who fluctuates between two suitors — a pensive local librarian and the owner of a chain of beauty salons who’s moving to Nevers and wants her and her young daughter to come live with him. But in the back of her mind she’s holding out for the return of a former lover, the father of her daughter, whom she lost track of after they spent a summer holiday together; she accidentally gave him the wrong address when he moved away and she never heard from him again. The conception may be a little too rigorously Catholic for some tastes (including mine), but Rohmer has become such a master of his chosen classic genre — the crystalline philosophical tale of character and romantic choice — that this is a nearly perfect work, in performance as well as execution, with an apposite if ambiguous extended reference to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in the penultimate act. With Charlotte Very, Frederic Van Dren Driessche, Michel Voletti, and Herve Furic. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 15 through 21. Read more
Another chapter from Film: The Front Line 1983. I can happily record that a good many of Breer’s films are available online, especially on YouTube. So even though he died last August and he remains flagrantly under-represented on DVD (although an excellent collection of 11 of his shorts, Recreation, was released some time ago on VHS, by Re:Voir in Paris), his art remains visible in some form, and Anthology Film Archives has prints of all or most of his works in 35mm. But I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find any online illustrations for my discussion of his film 77. — J.R.
All the major recent films of Robert Breer, an American who spent a crucial decade in Paris (1959-1969), are available in this country. But considering the fact that they’re independent animation, and that Breer is a one-man industry and not a Hollywood studio, they might as well be on the moon. They clearly inhabit a ghetto even more confining than that of the “foreign film,” because most critics lack an apparatus for dealing with them; hence, they find it easier to pretend that these works don’t exist. As uncontroversial as it might appear to be in most contexts, it is probably not irrelevant to note that when one of Breer’s most recent films, the characteristically brilliant Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1980) was screened at a New York Film Festival press show in 1982, it was rudely and audibly (if inexplicably) hissed. Read more