Monthly Archives: June 2020

The Road To Wellville

From the Chicago Reader (October 20, 1994). — J.R.



Alan Parker’s flair for vulgar showmanship pays off in his funny, entertaining 1994 adaptation of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel. The movie’s set in 1907 in Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, which is presided over by pre-New Age guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins). Health — the open sesame of the sucker’s purse, says a con man played by Michael Lerner, and while Parker’s satirical viewpoint encompasses this judgment and plenty of chicanery, it’s also sympathetic enough in the bargain to honor the sincerity of fanatics like Kellogg and many of his patients. Among the other leading characters are a dysfunctional married couple played by Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick who check into the sanitarium and wind up getting various forms of sex therapy (inadvertent and otherwise), Kellogg’s rebellious adopted son (Dana Carvey), and a young entrepreneur in town (John Cusack) who’s interested in becoming a breakfast cereal tycoon. The treatment of period is both fanciful and highly enjoyable, and if the story seems to run out of both ideas and energy before the end, it’s still an entertaining ride most of the way. With Colm Meaney, John Neville, Lara Flynn Boyle, Traci Lind, and Camryn Manheim. Read more

City of Sadness

From the Chicago Reader (1990). — J.R.


A remarkable and beautiful 160-minute family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Dust in the Wind) that begins at the end of Japan’s 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan and ends in 1949, when mainland China becomes communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreats to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) story telling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this is largely a meditation on communication itself. It is also one of the few masterworks of the recent contemporary cinema, and a film that deserves a lot more attention than the couple of screenings it’s getting locally; it’s depressing to think that even the best new Asian films usually can’t get distributed in this country (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 23, 4:30, and Sunday, June 24, 6:00, 443-3737)

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From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1996). — J.R.



Charles Burnett’s fifth feature (and the first he didn’t write), made for the Disney Channel in 1996. Adroitly scripted by coproducer Bill Cain from Gary Paulsen’s sketchy and rather lurid short novel for young adults, this is a powerful, skillful tale about one antebellum plantation slave (the title character, played by Carl Lumbly of To Sleep With Anger) teaching another slave (the narrator, a 12-year-old girl played by Allison Jones) how to read. As a parable about empowerment through reading this is at least as strong as Fahrenheit 451, and as a didactic fairy tale about the relationship between slavery and literacy it’s even stronger. In keeping with their Disney origins, Burnett delivers the story and drama in broad strokes, though he depicts even the white villains with humanity and some complexity (as in his only other film involving white as well as black characters, The Glass Shield). A wonderful, fully realized work — passionate, stirring, and beautiful. With Beau Bridges, Lorraine Toussaint, Bill Cobbs, and Kathleen York. 95 min. (JR)


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From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.

Alain Resnais’ first feature in English (1977, 110 min.) focuses on the imagination, dreams, and memories of an aging British novelist (John Gielgud) over one night as he mentally composes and recomposes his last book, using members of his immediate family — Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner, and Elaine Stritch — as his models. Although David Mercer’s witty, aphoristic script can be British to a fault, the film’s rich mental landscape is a good deal more universal, with everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s werewolves to a painted seaside backdrop providing the essential textures. Like all of Resnais’ best work, this is shot through with purposeful and lyrical enigmas, but the family profile that emerges is warm and penetrating, recalling the haunted Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night rather than the pieces of an abstract puzzle. The superb performances and Miklos Rozsa’s sumptuous Hollywood-style score give the film’s conceit a moving monumentality and depth, and Resnais’ insights into the fiction-making process are mesmerizing and beautiful. This is showing in a 16-millimeter print, but later in the evening the Film Center will present 35-millimeter prints of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Read more

The Prisoners Of Buñuel

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2000). — J.R.


Land Without Bread (1932), Luis Buñuel’s only documentary, examines the hopeless living conditions of an impoverished village in western Spain; Ramon Gieling’s 73-minute Dutch documentary The Prisoners of Buñuel reveals what the village’s people think of the film 60-odd years later, and while it’s hardly the last word on Buñuel, it does offer a thoughtful and provocative reflection on the intricate cross-purposes of life and art — not to mention accuracy and truth. One can’t necessarily believe everything the villagers say about the film, especially because some of them contradict one another. But conversely, to take Buñuel’s masterpiece entirely at face value would be to misread it: it’s a metaphysical statement more than anything else, and its offscreen narration mocks the touristic documentary in countless ways. It’s impossible to evaluate The Prisoners of Buñuel adequately if you haven’t seen Land Without Bread, and Gieling, who jokingly draws attention to the way portions of his own documentary are staged, seems well aware of the problem. (Several extracts appear when he screens the film in the village square, but hardly enough to allow for any final verdict.) Unfortunately this U.S. premiere, which Gieling will attend, doesn’t include Land Without Bread on the program, but Facets Multimedia Center will show it on Friday, November 17, as part of a Buñuel retrospective. Read more

Spirit Stream Storm

From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 1996). — J.R.

This program of 35-millimeter experimental films selected by Bruce Posner is a mixed bag, though there’s no denying the intensity of the works. That may be part of the problem: including musical interludes between clusters of films is a good idea, but it backfires because two of the interludes are as aggressive as the films, denying us a contemplative moment when we might catch our breath. But I can still think of two good reasons for seeing this show. There’s an awesome eight-minute fragment by Sergei Paradjanov, literally made on his deathbed, called Confession (1990) that easily surpasses his last two features and deserves to be ranked alongside his sublime Sayat Nova; it centers mainly on a long take juxtaposing a group of musicians (whose music is unheard), an apparent funeral, and various ritualistic activities — all happening at once in the same hallucinatory space in a way that recalls juxtapositions in medieval paintings. And then there are the dated but undeniably lively silent abstract expressionist works made between 1967 and 1992 by Stan Brakhage, the best of which are Night Music (1986) and The Dante Quartet (1987), where the tempi are sufficiently varied to justify the poetic and musical analogies implied in the titles. Read more

Disjointed [MO’ BETTER BLUES]

This review, originally published in August 3, 1990 Chicago Reader, was one of my first sustained efforts to write about the employment of jazz in movies. The movie isn’t as good or as entertaining as Lee’s latest messy Brechtian musical, Chiraq, although the latter film suggests once again that he still doesn’t have a clear sense of how to use music. — J.R.


MO’ BETTER BLUES ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington, Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Bill Nunn, Dick Anthony Williams, and John Turturro.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

First the good news: strictly as an exercise de style, Spike Lee’s fourth joint is in certain respects the liveliest and jazziest piece of filmmaking he’s turned out yet. From the arty close-ups behind the opening credits of — and liquid pans past, and dissolves between –- trumpet, lips, and lovers’ grasping hands in blue, yellow, amber, and green to the matching semicircular crane shots that frame the story, this is a movie cooking with ideas about filmmaking. Bringing back a good many of the featured players in Do the Right Thing, and introducing to the Spike Lee stable the highly talented Denzel Washington, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and Dick Anthony Williams (among others), it’s a movie bursting with personality and actorly energy as well. Read more


Fresh from one of the my favorite boutique labels, Twilight Time, comes the Blu-Ray of Jean Negulesco’s opulent, ridiculously overripe 1955 CinemaScope remake of his own 1939 The Rains Came, which I hadn’t seen since I was 13 or so — a highly enjoyable bad movie, which on some level must mean that it also qualifies as a good movie. Perhaps the most morally neutral adjective to be employed here is one of those used by Julie Kirgo, Twilight Time’s ever-industrious in-house scribe: “lurid”.

None of the characters here is ever quite believable — Lana Turner as wealthy, aristocratic maneater Lady Esketh, Michael Rennie as her self-hating cuckold husband, Richard Burton as the innocent and idealist doctor and one-time Untouchable who falls heavily for Lady Esketh, quotes Eliot and Shakespeare, and spouts profound aphorisms, Eugenie Leontovich as the urbane Maharani who raised the doctor, Fred MacMurray as a well-to-do and secretly virtuous alcoholic, Joan Caulfield as the latter’s oversheltered protégé — but every one of them is, shall we say, exceptionally vivid, and the performances are all much better than they need to be. Similarly,  the special effects trotted out for the title catastrophe are worthy of Cecil B. De Mille, with Lahore, Pakistan and (I presume) various Fox soundstages standing in for Ranchipur as fearlessly as the mesmerizing White Russian refugee Leontovich pretends to be Indian, or the no less self-validating Lana Turner pretends to be candid. Read more

The Ten Commandments

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). — J.R.

"Die zehn Gebote" - Kabel 1



With a running time of nearly four hours, Cecil B. De Mille’s last feature and most extravagant blockbuster is full of the absurdities and vulgarities one expects, but it isn’t boring for a minute. Although it’s inferior in some respects to De Mille’s 1923 picture of the same title (which used the story of Moses as an extended prologue to a contemporary tale) and some of the special effects look less plausible now than they did in 1956, the color is ravishing, and De Mille’s form of showmanship, which includes a personal introduction and his own narration, never falters. Simultaneously ludicrous and splendid, this is an epic driven by the sort of personal conviction one almost never finds in more recent Hollywood monoliths. With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, H.B. Warner, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, John Carradine, and many other familiar faces, including Woody Strode as the king of Ethiopia. 220 min. (JR)


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The Fabulous Baker Boys

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1989). This lovely and sexy film is available on Twilight Time, with lots of extras (including deleted scenes and two separate audio commentaries). — J.R.

Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play Jack and Frank Baker, a second-rate cocktail-lounge piano duo with staying power who hire sexy vocalist Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) to strengthen their act, in the impressive 1989 directorial debut of screenwriter Steve Kloves (Racing With the Moon), who also wrote the script. Frank is the square brother who handles the business; he’s married, with kids, and not very musically inspired. Jack is remote, relatively irresponsible, and gifted; he plays jazz in his spare time and sounds like a leaner version of Bill Evans (his piano solos are dubbed, for the most part expertly, by Dave Grusin, the film’s music director). Susie is a former call girl who brings some soul to the group, as well as some problems when she and Jack develop a mutual attraction. This pared-away comedy-drama, which concentrates exclusively on the three characters, has plenty of old-fashioned virtues: deft acting, a nice sense of scale that makes the drama agreeably life-size, a good use of Seattle locations, fluid camera work (by Michael Ballhaus), a kind of burnished romanticism about the music, and a genuine feeling for the characters and their various means of coping. Read more

Drugstore Cowboy

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


This amiable, no-nonsense account of a quartet of Portland, Oregon, junkies in 1971 fully lives up to the promise of Mala Noche, director Gus Van Sant’s previous feature. Adapted by Van Sant and Daniel Yost from an unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle, this 1989 feature has the kind of stylistic conviction that immediately wins one over; it conveys something of a junkie’s inner life with its editing rhythms, unorthodox use of sudden close-ups, hallucinatory passages, and Matt Dillon’s offscreen narration, and it documents the outer necessities of the lifestyle (including many drugstore robberies and changes of address). The characters are all quirky and life-size (the Dillon character’s superstitiousness is one of the principal motors of the plot, and the story’s outcome doesn’t prove him wrong), and like Bill Forsyth’s handling of the burglaries in Breaking In, Van Sant’s treatment of drugs is refreshingly free of either moralizing or romanticizing. It’s one indication of his ease and assurance that he successfully integrates the persona of William S. Burroughs into a fiction film: all the actors are used expertly, but it’s Burroughs, cropping up near the end, who articulates the film’s sociopolitical moral in a contemporary context. Read more

Rotterdam: New director, old traditions

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). — J.R.

Despite worries that the passionate eclecticism of the late Hubert Bals in steering the Rotterdam Festival would be a hard act to follow, Marco Müller, in his first year as director, maintained the festival’s maverick spirit and cozy intensity while adding his own personal stamp. Increasing the usual number of films by 50 per cent may have taxed his staff, but publishing excellent bilingual monographs (on Ritwik Ghatak, David Cronenberg and Gennadi Sjpalikov) gave the audience a good head start.

Best of all, Müller continued the Rotterdam tradition of offering a slew of uncommon pleasures unavailable elsewhere. Where else could one find André Labarthe’s TV interview-portraits of directors, the multiple versions of Straub and Huillet’s The Death of Empedocles and Black Sin (as well as the premiere of their intriguing 51-minute Cézanne), Nanni Moretti’s daffy and lively Palombella Rosa, and perhaps the best films to date of Eduardo de Gregorio, Wayne Wang and Otar Iosseliani?

The work by American independents was especially strong and varied. Leslie Thornton’s freakishly disturbing and still-in-progress Peggy and Fred in Hell, split between film and video, plants two odd children in an apocalyptic black and white universe of found objects, found footage and lost meanings, perpetually reinventing culture as it slips from their (and our) grasp. Read more

The Arabian Nights

From Oui (February 1975). The word “coyness” was misprinted as “boyness,” and I wondered at the time if this might have been an editor’s Freudian slip. –- J.R.



The Arabian Nights. In his treatment of The Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo

Pasolini has created what might be considered his first pagan film — a work in

which Western coyness and guilt about sex (and most of the other varieties of

20th Century angst) seem to have mysteriously vanished. Shooting an odd batch

of tales within tales in gorgeous sections of Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran and Nepal,

Pasolini delves into a sort of fairy-tale anthropology that is often most luminous

when it’s least comprehensible. The storytelling is ponderous, but the moods

are spellbinding. The magic that we usually associate with these tales is kept

in the wings until the later sequences and is awkwardly handled when it appears.

It’s the magic of the people and the places that holds Pasolini’s interest,

and the quality that most sustains this genuinely other-worldly film is its almost

primeval strangeness.


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Biloxi Blues

From the March 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.



Based on a play that constitutes part two of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, concerned with the experiences of the hero (Matthew Broderick) at boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1943, this is an engaging, well-crafted comedy that receives very able direction from Mike Nichols. The period decor and details are nicely handled (apart from the silly decision to adapt clips from Buck Privates and Movietone News to the ‘Scope format, yielding an unnecessary anachronism), and while most of the characters are fairly standard types —  sadistic drill sergeant (Christopher Walken), Jewish intellectual (Corey Parker), Polish lout (Matt Mulhern), raunchy prostitute (Park Overall), sophisticated girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller) — the actors give them their best shot, including the somewhat miscast Walken. The nostalgic visual style of the film, successfully modeled on Norman Rockwell by production designer Paul Sylbert and cinematographer Bill Butler, is especially fetching, and the somewhat Woody Allen-ish offscreen narration shows Simon at his best. Perhaps this movie isn’t as wise or as profound as Simon wants it to be, but it is certainly a cut above sitcom complacency, and packed with wit and charm (1988). (JR)


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The Birdcage

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1996). — J.R.


One swell reason for seeing this fresh Americanized remake of La cage aux folles — the 1978 French farce about a middle-aged gay couple — written by Elaine May for her old improv partner, producer-director Mike Nichols, and costarring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the couple — is its hilarious depiction of Pat Buchanan as played by Gene Hackman, which implies, among other things, that only a drag queen could adequately fulfill Buchanan’s dream of ideal womanhood. More specifically, the son (Dan Futterman) of the proprietor (Williams) of a Florida nightclub with a drag show called “The Birdcage” becomes engaged to the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of an ultraconservative senator (Hackman) who wants to visit his future in-laws, leading to frantic preparations for a dinner party at which the proprietor’s drag-queen partner winds up playing the boy’s mother. (Hackman’s wife, incidentally, is played by Dianne Wiest.) This isn’t the supreme masterpiece it might have been, but Nichols’s direction is very polished and some of the lines and details are awfully funny.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum

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