Monthly Archives: June 2020

Vanilla Sky

From the December 1, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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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)

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The Shanghai Gesture

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

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Not exactly Josef von Sternberg in his heyday (1941), but still choice goods — a perverse dream bubble adapted by Sternberg, Jules Furthman, and others from a creaky but serviceable John Colton play about the madam of a Shanghai brothel (Ona Munson) taking revenge on a British official and former lover (Walter Huston) by corrupting his daughter (Gene Tierney). Victor Mature is also around, and surprisingly effective, as a decadent bisexual; other exotic cameos are doled out to Maria Ouspenskaya, Albert Bassermann, Eric Blore, Phyllis Brooks, and Mike Mazurki. Given the censorship of the period, much of the decadence is implied rather than stated. But Sternberg’s adept handling of claustrophobic space and sinister atmospherics made this melodrama an understandable favorite of the Surrealists, and the icy tone cuts through the funk like a knife. (JR)

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Used Innocence

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.

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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

SPIONE (1976 review)

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

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2004). — J.R.

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If Rushmore (1998) recalls J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) offers a touch of Franny and Zooey, this Wes Anderson feature suffers from the mannerist self-consciousness of Seymour: An Introduction. Each successive movie seems further removed from real human behavior, though the attitudes here — mainly invested in Bill Murray as the title character, an over-the-hill filmmaker-oceanographer — seem as authentic as ever, and the fantasy trimmings are noticeably more lavish, drawing on the resources of Italy’s Cinecitta studio and recalling Fellini in their cartoon colors. The secondary eccentrics — Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort — resourcefully juggle about two character traits apiece, and the climactic rescue sequence is characteristically underplayed. Noah Baumbach collaborated on the arch script, whose bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates. R, 118 min. (JR)

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At Long Last Love

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

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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)

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Insignificance

Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play — about Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) converging in New York City in 1954 — has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their cliched media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon. The Monroe-Einstein connection isn’t completely contrived. Monroe once expressed a sexual interest in him to Shelley Winters, and a signed photograph of Einstein was among her possessions when she died. But the film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail — sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one. (JR) Read more

Brightness

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1989). — J.R.

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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)

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Eclipse

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)

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The Palm Beach Story

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1989). — J.R.

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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)

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Funny Face

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.

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FunnyFace

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)

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Oleanna

From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 2007). — J.R.

I haven’t seen David Mamet’s controversial two-character play on the stage, but his own film adaptation (2007) is easily his best movie since House of Games. The two characters are a pontificating, bullying male college professor (William H. Macy) up for tenure and his initially cowed, eventually empowered female student (Debra Eisenstadt), who winds up charging him with sexual harassment. The stage versions have often been attacked for siding with the professor, but what seems most impressive about the movie, which may have benefited from certain refinements in the material, is that the two characters are so evenly matched by the dramaturgy that they become Strindbergian antagonists in a life-and-death struggle — equally odious in their authoritarian reliance on institutions to define their own identities and equally crippled by what might be described as their political impotence, which drives them to reach desperately for whatever institutional weapons are available to them. Within this context, education becomes as much an alibi as political correctness, and the most telling aspect of the struggle is that the two characters, even in their carefully coded sexual roles, become two different versions of the same blocked individual. Read more

Cobb

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1994). — J.R.

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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

That Man From Rio

From the Chicago Reader (Mar 1, 1998). — J.R.

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After his first two features in the early 60s (The Love Game, The Five-Day Lover), Philippe de Broca, a former assistant to Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, was taken by some to be a member of the French New Wave — an impression that was quickly undermined by the glossy commercial fare that followed, including this enjoyable 1964 thriller romp with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. If memory serves, this is swell light entertainment — there’s a nice score by Georges Delerue, and the original screenplay was nominated for an Oscar — designed to autodestruct as soon as you see it. (JR)

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Underground

From the Chicago Reader (February 6, 1998). — J.R.

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Though slightly trimmed by director-writer Emir Kusturica for American consumption, this riotous 167-minute satirical and farcical allegory about the former Yugoslavia from World War II to the postcommunist present is still marvelously excessive. The outrageous plot involves a couple of anti-Nazi arms dealers and gold traffickers who gain a reputation as communist heroes. One of them (Miki Manojlovic) installs a group of refugees in his grandfather’s cellar, and on the pretext that the war is still raging upstairs he gets them to manufacture arms and other black-market items until the 60s, meanwhile seducing the actress (Mirjana Jokovic) that his best friend (Lazar Ristovski) hoped to marry. Loosely based on a play by cowriter Dusan Kovacevic, this sarcastic, carnivalesque epic won the 1995 Palme d’Or at Cannes and has been at the center of a furious controversy ever since for what’s been called its pro-Serbian stance. (Kusturica himself is a Bosnian Muslim.) However one chooses to take its jaundiced view of history, it’s probably the best film to date by the talented Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream), a triumph of mise en scene mated to a comic vision that keeps topping its own hyperbole. Read more