From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 2001). — J.R.
This no-nonsense documentary (2000) by the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (an Oscar winner for Belle Epoque) is a welcome primer on Latin jazz, an expansive genre that can range from a Dizzy Gillespie big-band arrangement to a Charlie Haden ballad. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the minimal exterior footage of musicians, shot in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Sweden, is digital video while the much slicker footage in simple studio settings is on celluloid — an appropriate combination, even if there’s a bit too much restless MTV-like cutting and angle changing. Much more importantly, Trueba’s commentaries are brief and to the point, and are never delivered over the music. A celebration of visual as well as aural delights, the film amply demonstrates how playing certain percussive instruments — conga drums, vibes, even piano — is much like dancing (though Trueba also provides actual dancing to go with Chano Dominguez’s jazz-flamenco fusions near the beginning and some Afro-Cuban drumming near the end). Apart from the percussiveness, the music is extremely varied, running the gamut from Eliane Elias’s lyrical piano to Gato Barbieri’s gruff but tender tenor sax to Chico O’Farrill’s wonderful big-band scoring; among the many other featured players are Paquito d’Rivera, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, and a couple of the latter’s relatives. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2001). — J.R.
I’m still trying to decide if this 146-minute piece of hocus-pocus (2001) is David Lynch’s best feature between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. In any case, it’s immensely more likable than his other stabs at neonoir (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway), perhaps because it likes its characters and avoids sentimentalizing or sneering at them (the sort of thing that limited Twin Peaks, at least in spots). Originally conceived and rejected as a TV pilot, then expanded after some French producers stepped in, it has the benefit of Lynch’s own observations about Hollywood, which were fresher at this point than his puritanical notations on small towns in the American heartland. The best-known actors (Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Dan Hedaya) wound up relatively marginalized, while the lesser-known talents (in particular the remarkable Naomi Watts and the glamorous Laura Elena Harring) were invited to take over the movie (and have a field day doing so). The plot slides along agreeably as a tantalizing mystery before becoming almost completely inexplicable, though no less thrilling, in the closing stretches — but that’s what Lynch is famous for. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 13, 1998). — J.R.
Though Adrian Lyne’s clodhopper direction, underlined by a mushy Ennio Morricone score, predictably runs the gamut from soft-core porn in the manner of David Hamilton to hectoring close-ups, this is perhaps Lyne’s best movie after Jacob’s Ladder — a genuinely disturbing (if far from literary) adaptation of Nabokov’s extraordinary novel, written by former journalist Stephen Schiff and starring, predictably, Jeremy Irons. It shines in the areas where Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation is deficient: Dominique Swain, the actress playing Lolita here, actually looks 14, making this much more a story about corrupted innocence, and it unfolds in American locations in the late 40s. In every other respect, however, Kubrick’s version is superior and will clearly endure as the better movie: Frank Langella as Quilty can’t hold a candle to Peter Sellers, and Melanie Griffith plays a poor second to Shelley Winters as the heroine’s mother. Your time would be better spent reading or rereading the novel than seeing either film version, but this overproduced 1998 art film has its moments. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1998). — J.R.
For the most part, this is a precise, shot-by-shot video “remake” of a little-known half-hour documentary film made in Chicago in 1967. The original film, made by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig, was a portrait of 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone as she was earning a BFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute, working for the postal service, and taking photographs (three years later she would publish The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution). The “remake” was made by Elisabeth Subrin (Swallow), a former grad student at the School of the Art Institute who worked with actors and detailed reproductions of Firestone’s paintings and drawings. This fascinating attempt at duplication ultimately has more to say about the 90s than the 60s: though it has some impact of its own as a document about prefeminist awakening, it?s more valuable as a commentary on what separates the past from the present. Kim Soss gives a good performance as Firestone, but her style of speaking is noticeably more guarded and unemotional, telling us a great deal about differences in everyday speech and body language 30 years apart. Read more
Members of a farming family incessantly repeat the same lines of dialogue while a student prepares to leave home for school; guests at an interminable wedding cackle maniacally while the ghost of the groom’s lover interferes with the ceremony. Now over 70, the great Russian filmmaker Kira Muratova (The Asthenic Syndrome) seems to get wilder and more transgressive with every passing year. This updated merging of two early Anton Chekhov texts (the short play Tatiana Repina and the story Difficult Natures) veers closer to the mad lucidity of Gogol than to the wry realism of The Cherry Orchard. I found the extreme stylization mesmerizing, hilarious, and ultimately closer to hyperrealism than absurdism, though if you enter this without any warning you might wind up fleeing in terror. In Russian with subtitles. 120 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1991). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Written by Malia Scotch Marmo
With Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Aiello, Gena Rowlands, Laura San Giacomo, Roxanne Hart, Danton Stone, and Tim Guinee.
“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” This standard expression of cheerfully blinkered American consumption tells us a lot about the way we think, especially if we substitute other words and phrases for “art” — terms such as life, the world, democracy, the Middle East, Kuwait, or Iraq. By concentrating on what we like, our media excel in holding and gratifying our attention — without broaching the broader issue of our ignorance, which might, after all, upset and confound the steady (if highly selective) information flow. Whether the movie in question is CNN’s recent made-for-TV miniseries Crisis in the Gulf and its popular sequel War in the Gulf (both assigned catchy, lurid logos with flaming red letters) or an effective theatrical release like Once Around, its power to grip us and persuade us is largely predicated on a series of absences and elisions designed to forestall and even silence our curiosity about what we don’t know, along with well-prepared servings of what we know we like. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.
Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)
From the June 22, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Ontario Film Review Board has banned this history of U.S. marijuana laws because it contains 20 seconds of archival footage showing rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees smoking dope in a lab experiment. Apparently this violates the Ontario Theatres Act, which forbids abuse of an animal in making a film, although the board showed no concern about mice falling off a table or fish swimming sideways in the same sequence (at least the simians seem to be enjoying themselves). A better example of animal abuse might be compelling a filmmaker to submit his work to censors or incarcerating untold thousands of kids for having harmless fun while hypocritical state agents and presidents show an almost total lack of interest in the truth or falsity of their own antidrug propaganda. Director Ron Mann specializes in documentaries celebrating countercultural forms and practices (Comic Book Confidential, Twist, Poetry in Motion, Imagine the Sound); this hilarious yet frightening piece of agitprop, using found footage, period music, jaunty animated titles, and narration by Woody Harrelson (written by Solomon Vesta), is as entertaining and informative as anything Mann’s ever done and as good an example of grass humor as you’re likely to find. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.
It seems almost impossible that someone could vulgarize and coarsen Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel any further, but leave it to director Brian De Palma, working here with a script by Michael Cristofer, to plumb uncharted depths. Wolfe’s conservative, page-turning satire pretending to be centrist is the tale of Sherman McCoy, a young multimillionaire bond trader (Tom Hanks) who takes a wrong turn and winds up in the south Bronx, where his car hits a young black man, whose companion may have been trying to mug McCoy. The compromising circumstance of McCoy’s mistress being in the car with him doesn’t help matters when he finds himself at the center of political machinations involving among others a black religious leader (John Hancock), a district attorney running for mayor, and a down-and-out alcoholic reporter. It’s easy enough to accept the unconvincing Brit journalist of the original being turned into an American narrator played by Bruce Willis. But the novel — informed by some sophistication about New York politics and life-styles even as it refrained from entering the consciousness of a single female or nonwhite character — is predicated on our never knowing (or caring too much) what actually happened in the south Bronx; the movie removes such ambiguity, couldn’t care less about accuracy (a white teacher at a ghetto high school is seen waxing his expensive sports car), turns the mistress (already a conniving bitch) into a bimbo, gets most of its kicks from moronic dialogue (including a truly offensive gag about AIDS), and then wraps things up with a self-righteous sermon by a black judge (Morgan Freeman) — a white judge in the novel — that concludes, Go home and be decent people. Read more
From the September 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
It’s a fair sign of the capriciousness of the American press that it took this crass 1991 movie to get the media to discuss the assassination of John F. Kennedy; sad to say, Oliver Stone’s three hours of bombast did little to raise the level of discussion. As someone who doesn’t believe much of the Warren Report, I’m favorably disposed toward any movie that seriously questions it, but Stone’s all-purpose conspiracy theory, built like a house of cards, rivals Mississippi Burning in its sheer crudeness and contempt for the audience. Like New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison —who investigated the assassination in the late 60s and is played as a spotless white knight by Kevin Costner — Stone and cowriter Zachary Sklar, hampered by harassment and multiple cover-ups, find themselves stuck for a suspect and focus their anger on gay businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), hoping that homophobic melodrama (complete with a wholly invented male hustler played by Kevin Bacon and a dubious inflation of Shaw’s CIA connections) will paper over the gaps left in the argument. What emerges has its compelling moments, but the obfuscation needed to put it across matches the Warren Report’s desire to oversimplify. Read more
From the October 1, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
This 1997 British film updates Henry James’s late novel in more ways than one, not only setting the story several years later but also inverting the morality of the original: in keeping with 90s ethics, the gold-digging villains have been transformed into sympathetic heroes. By literary standards this is disgraceful, but for armchair tourists and oglers it’s a nice, glossy spread. Apparently director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini decided, contra prudish James, that marrying a dying American heiress for her loot is exactly what a penniless English journalist should do, even when it involves the collusion of his mistress, so heiress Milly Theale, the soul of the novel, barely exists here. This movie is about pretending to catch up with what you didn’t read in college, and oohing and aahing over conspicuous consumption and pretty sites in Venice, including Helena Bonham Carter’s bare ass. With Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Rampling, and Michael Gambon. R, 101 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 5, 1990). — J.R.
As a moviegoer who was privileged to see a good many films, both new and old, in a number of contexts, places, and formats in 1989, I can’t say it was a bad year for me at all. I saw two incontestably great films at the Rotterdam film festival (Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere and Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan’s A Story of the Wind), and several uncommonly good ones both there and at the festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and Chicago. (Istvan Darday and Gyorgyu Szalai’s The Documentator and Jane Campion’s Sweetie — the latter due to be released in the U.S. early this year–are particular standouts.) Thanks to the increasing availability of older films on video, I was able to catch up with certain major works that I’d missed and see many others that I already cherished.
But considering only the movies that played theatrically for the first time in Chicago, I have to admit that it was a discouraging year. In fact, 1989 was the worst year for movies that I can remember, particularly when it comes to U.S. releases. Gifted filmmakers are granted less and less freedom as the Hollywood studios are taken over by conglomerates and European films are set up as international coproductions — both trends that have been in process for some time now; and the grim consequences of these changes become much more apparent when one takes a long backward look rather than when one considers the immediate surface effects of movies on a week-by-week basis. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). — J.R.
John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller (Gloria was the second), a post-noir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when it was first released in 1976; two years later, he released this recut, shorter, and equally good version, which didn’t fare much better. Actually more a personal and deeply felt character study than a routine action picture, it follows the last days of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint who recklessly gambles his way into such debt with the mob that he has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a summation of Cassavetes’s view of what life is all about. In fact what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is that Cassavetes regarded him as his alter ego — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered show-biz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 2001). — J.R.
John Cassavetes’s galvanic 1968 drama about one long night in the lives of an estranged well-to-do married couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) and their temporary lovers (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel) was the first of his independent features to become a hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It remains one of the only American films to take the middle class seriously, depicting the compulsive, embarrassed laughter of people facing their own sexual longing and some of the emotional devastation brought about by the so-called sexual revolution. (Interestingly, Cassavetes set out to make a trenchant critique of the middle class, but his characteristic empathy for all of his characters makes this a far cry from simple satire.) Shot in 16-millimeter black and white with a good many close-ups, this often takes an unsparing yet compassionate “documentary” look at emotions most movies prefer to gloss over or cover up. Adroitly written and directed, and superbly acted–the leads and Val Avery are all uncommonly good (the astonishing Lynn Carlin was a nonprofessional discovered by Cassavetes, working at the time as Robert Altman’s secretary)–this is one of the most powerful and influential American films of the 60s. Read more
From the October 30, 2009 Chicago Reader. I was delighted to learn that Barney Rosset (1922-2012) Iiked this review. — J.R.
A tiresome film on an interesting subject, this 2007 documentary jives with fancy graphics and pop golden oldies as it profiles Barney Rosset, editor and publisher of the often scandalous Grove Press and Evergreen Review. The man who helped launch the career of Samuel Beckett is quickly overtaken by the one who operated a Soho literary salon while profiting as a porn merchant, and apart from noting Rosset’s wealthy Jewish-Irish origins, video makers Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg don’t give us much to differentiate him from someone like Hugh Hefner. A cable-TV interview of Rosset by Screw publisher Al Goldstein is given as much prominence as Rosset’s 1937 home movies of his trip through Europe, which suggests that swagger matters more than history or culture. There are more stupid sound bites than smart ones, but the directors don’t seem to care which is which. 97 min. (JR)