Monthly Archives: August 2020

Master Of The House

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s ┬ádual-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.

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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)

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The Seventh Continent

From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 1994). — J.R.

A powerful, provocative, and highly disturbing Austrian film by Michael Haneke that focuses on the collective suicide of a young and seemingly “normal” family (1989). Prompted by Austria’s high suicide rate and various news stories, the film’s agenda is not immediately apparent; it focuses at first on the family’s highly repetitive life-style, taking its time establishing the daily patterns of the characters. The roles of television and money in their lives are crucial to what this film is about, but the absence of any obvious motives for the family’s ultimate despair is part of what gives this film its devastating impact. Its tact and intelligence, and also its reticence and detachment, make it a shocking and potent statement about our times — to my mind a work much superior to the two other films in Haneke’s trilogy about contemporary, affectless violence, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. With Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer, and Udo Samel. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, November 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, November 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Grass

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 »

Dirty Dancing

From the Chicago Reader in late 1987. — J.R.

A rather novel Flashdance spin-off, this coming-of-age dancing romance (1987) is set in a Catskills resort during the summer of 1963. What sets it apart from others of its ilk is that some of the leads — notably Jennifer Grey, who achieves her apotheosis by learning the mambo, and Jerry Orbach — actually resemble real people rather than actors. The plot hinges on class differences between resort customers and staff members (dirty dancing is what the latter do at their own parties), and before the movie collapses into the utopian nonsense that seems obligatory to this subgenre, a surprising amount of sensitivity and satirical insight emerges from Eleanor Bergstein’s script and Emile Ardolino’s direction. There’s also a memorable use of the resort location, and while the music on the soundtrack is predictably overloud, the period detail is refreshingly soft-pedaled. PG-13, 97 min. (JR)

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The Bonfire of the Vanities

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1992). — J.R.

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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 »

JFK

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 »

The Wings Of The Dove

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)

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La Nuit Fantastique

From the Chicago Reader (September 2, 2005). — J.R.

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Made during the French Occupation, this 1942 feature by Marcel L’Herbier is a whimsical yet brittle nocturnal fantasy that consists mainly of a nerdy Parisian student’s expressionistic, romantic dream about pursuing an imaginary beauty. It’s the first film scripted by Louis Chavance, editor of L’Atalante and writer of the corrosive Le corbeau, and it oddly evokes both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Eyes Wide Shut in its troubled moods and dreamlike studio settings (e.g., a formal ball at the Louvre, complete with magic show and trapdoors). Its illogical drift seems to convey the creepy collective unconscious of the occupation, so indelibly that even the happy ending turns out to be deeply disturbing. In French with subtitles. 100 min. (JR)

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Best of a Bad Year [The Best Films of 1989]

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 »

War Porn [JARHEAD]

From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 2005). — J.R.

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Jarhead

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by William Broyles Jr.

With Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, and Skyler Stone

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When Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 people argued over its politics. I always thought it was mainly prowar, so I got some satisfaction from seeing an early scene in Jarhead that shows marines at their Mojave Desert base in 1990 watching the movie on video. Itching for the gulf war to start, they whoop it up during the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence, in which the cartoonish Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore ecstatically launches an air attack on a Vietnamese village to the strains of Wagner. Director Francis Ford Coppola, a known liberal, plainly saw the scene as disturbing, but screenwriter John Milius, a known hawk, has often suggested that he saw it as a hoot.

Like most of the good things in Jarhead — a somewhat muddled adaptation by writer William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) of Anthony Swofford’s best-selling 2003 memoir — the reference to Apocalypse Now comes from the book, which alludes to movies in its first paragraph.… Read more »

Days of Being Wild

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.

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Wong Kar-wai’s idiosyncratic style first became apparent in this gorgeously moody second feature (1991), whose romantic vision of 1960 Hong Kong as a network of unfulfilled longings would later echo through In the Mood for Love. Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong’s answer to James Dean (in fact the movie appropriates its Cantonese title from Rebel Without a Cause), plays a heartless ladies’ man, raised by a prostitute, who eventually leaves for the Philippines in search of his real mother. Maggie Cheung is a waitress at a soccer stadium whom the man woos with his philosophical ruminations on a wall clock, and Andy Lau is a lonely cop who yearns for her. This was conceived as the first of two movies, and its puzzling coda was intended as a teaser for the second part; the box office failure of Days of Being Wild precluded a sequel and delayed its stateside release for years, though its lack of dramatic closure now seems almost appropriate. As critic Tony Rayns has noted, it’s “the first film to rhyme nostalgia for a half-imaginary past with future shock.” In Cantonese with subtitles. 94 min. Music Box.

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). — J.R.

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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 »

Faces

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 »

Obscene

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)

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Affliction

From the January 29, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Because most of the acting is authentic and powerful (especially that of Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, and Jim True), the source (a Russell Banks novel) is more than respectable, and the subject — an all-around fuckup (Nolte) in a dying New England town becomes even more fucked-up — and winter setting are unrelentingly grim, one has to admire writer-director Paul Schrader for having the guts to make this picture. But I found it more punishing than edifying. A brave effort to stare down the specter of American failure, it gets off on the wrong foot by pretentiously turning the doomed hero into a Christ figure — a traffic cop with arms extended in crucifixion mode — before the story even gets started. Flashbacks come in two subjective styles — grainy and handheld to recount the meanness and violence of the hero’s awful father (James Coburn, a bit out of his depth), black-and-white to reconfigure the recent past. The hero’s brother (Willem Dafoe), daughter (Brigid Tierney), and ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) all have their say, but the narcissism of wounded macho gets in the last word, and it’s last year’s groceries. (JR)

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