Pedro Almodovar’s poorly made 1990 follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has an offensive premise and a pathetic, almost pleading desire to outrage our sensibilities with it. A 23-year-old simpleton (Antonio Banderas), released from a mental asylum where he’s lived for most of his life, kidnaps a small-time movie actress and junkie (Victoria Abril) he’s fallen for after a brief encounter during one of his many escapes from the institution. He firmly believes that in time she will return his affection, and — what do you know? — he proves to be absolutely right. If someone made an equivalent black comedy about a victim of racism falling in love with his or her oppressor, people would really be outraged, but I guess it’s OK if you’re simply trashing a trashy woman. There’s also a feeble subplot here about the actress’s director (Francisco Rabal) and sister (Loles Leon) that goes nowhere. The two lead characters are cardboard constructions, which sinks the film into tedium despite enough nudity to earn it an X rating. 111 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by James Benning
what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded
Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Read more
Criterion has just released Overlord on Blue-Ray. Here are my two separate reviews of the film, written over three decades apart — for Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500, and for the Chicago Reader,June 2, 2006. — J.R.
Great Britain. 1975
Director: Stuart Cooper
Cert–A. dist-EMI. p.c–Joswend. p–James Quinn. p. manager—
Michael Guest. sc–Stuart Cooper, Christopher Hudson. ph–John
I’m immensely grateful to Thomas Frank in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s — an article you can’t access online unless you subscribe, so please, run out and buy this issue if you can (if you don’t already have it), and turn to “Team America” on pp. 6-9 — for clarifying how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2005 best seller and prizewinner that Spielberg and Kushner credit as their main source. When I gave Lincolnone of its few negative reviews in the Forward last year, I only had a short time to write my review after seeing the film and before I flew to the Viennale, and despite the fact that I already had Goodwin’s doorstop/monolith within my clutches by then, there wasn’t enough time for me to dope out how much of what bothered me about the film was ascribable to her book. Frank’s column, even though it doesn’t mention the ideological similarity of Lincoln and Schindler’s List that I’ve written about elsewhere (both movies, as I see them, are ultimately defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism, corruptions and all, and not only defenses of corruption in politics), leaves little doubt that the popularity and prestige of Goodwin’s book aren’t simply matters of rewarding intellectual integrity and/or historical perspicacity. Read more
My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.
The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters.I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 27, 1997). — J.R.
Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss’s chances for reelection. He flies to southern California, engaging a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, reportedly lampooning Robert Evans) to help fake a war in Albania that will make the president shine again. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s script is gleefully hyperbolic without ever straying from its political target — the gulf war is repeatedly cited as the conspirators debate what the American public will swallow. Wag the Dog falters only in coming up with an adequate curtain closer (and in keeping both public response and the president out of frame, which makes the proceedings more theoretical than is necessary). Otherwise this is hilarious, deadly stuff, sparked by the cynical gusto of the two leads as well as the fascinating technical display of how TV “documentary evidence” can be digitally manufactured inside a studio. Barry Levinson directed with a reasonable amount of panache; with Kirsten Dunst, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, and Willie Nelson. Starts next Friday, January 2. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sight and Sound commissioned the following from me for its “Home Cinema” feature in its September 2013 issue, but then, without telling me (or explaining why), decided not to use it. — J.R.
I haven’t yet caught up with Jerry Lewis’ spotty directing for TV, such as his episodes for Ben Casey (1964) and The Bold Ones (1970) or — more intriguing — L’uomo d’oro, fifteen two-minute sketches made for Italian TV in 1971. But there’s no doubt that his main creative bond with television is from live broadcasts — chiefly appearances with Dean Martin between 1948 and the mid-1950s in which the cascading, anarchic improvs, significantly erupting during one of America’s most repressive periods, made the whole notion of any plotted mise en scène superfluous. Luckily, I did get to see a late manifestation of this tendency in the mainly live segments of the 90-minute L’invité du dimanchein 1971, when Lewis, using hardly a single word of French, held a large audience captive (including Jean-Pierre Cassel, Louis Malle, and Pierre Etaix, virtually at his feet) with his prolonged and highly inventive antics. Just as no one turns toJo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) for proof of Richard Pryor’s genius, or even cares about who directed Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Lewis’s distinction as an auteur, both dangerous and enduring, is founded on the threat of his physical presence. Read more
One of the joys of living in Chicago is the special quality of its scruffy storefront theater, although I must confess that during my 20 years here as a film reviewer, I took advantage of this resource only rarely, apart from a few intermittent discoveries over the years (such as the 21-year-old Theatre Oobleck, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon and savor in some of its earliest productions). More recently, since my retirement from the Chicago Reader, I’ve happily come across no less than four separate theaters of this kind in my own neighborhood so far, and over the past two Friday evenings I’ve had the pleasure of attending very impressive productions of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Strawdog (on 3829 North Broadway) and, tonight, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at the Oracle just a few doors down from there (on 3809 North Broadway).
The Strawdog’s funky and entertaining version of Brecht (see above) has had the benefit of a thoughtful and passionate rave from the Reader’s Albert Williams, so the performance I attended was nearly sold out. But the Oracle’s Strindberg, despite a mainly favorable capsule in the same paper from Kerry Reid, shockingly had only seven customers at the performance I attended tonight, making us a slightly smaller crowd than the production’s able cast of eight. Read more
(1981), C. Director: Dennis Hopper. With Linda Manz, Dennis Hopper, Sharon Farrell, and Raymond Burr. 94 min. R. Media, $59.95.
When it was released, a friend wittily and succinctly described Out of the Blue as “Dennis Hopper’s Ordinary People.” Though this film didn’t start out as a Hopper movie (he signed on as an actor and took over direction after shooting started), it certainly has the Hopper flavor: relentlessly raunchy and downbeat, and informed throughout by the kind of generational anguish and sense of doom that characterizes both of his earlier films [Easy Rider and The Last Movie].
Hopper, one should recall, is a figure identified with the 1950s. He made his acting debut alongside James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Conceived as a kind of punk remake of Rebel set in a contemporary working-class environment, Out of the Blue centers around Cindy “CeBe” Barnes (Linda Manz), an alienated 15-year-old punk who perpetually mourns the deaths of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), is a junkie who works at a cheap restaurant; her father, Don (Hopper), is a former trucker and an alcoholic finishing off a five-year stint in prison when the film opens. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 31, 1992). — J.R.
Ever since he moved to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has been an invaluable presence not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Still, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters may diminish the film’s overall accomplishment but shouldn’t be allowed to serve as an excuse to overlook it; as he puts it, the film’s “intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable.” Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1992). — J.R.
This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a crime to fit the punishment by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. 94 min. (JR) Read more
Though it may not reach the level of sublimity of his three last features, Luis Buñuel recounts the story of a frigid upper-class housewife (Deneuve), devoted to her husband (Jean Sorel), who secretly works at a high-class brothel every weekday afternoon in order to satisfy her masochistic impulses. Placing the heroine’s fantasies, dreams, and recollections on the same plane as her everyday adventures, Buñuel comes closer to the French New Wave than he did before or after, and much of his secondary cast reinforces this association (including Michel Piccoli, Macha Meril, and, most memorably, Pierre Clementi as a dandyish gangster), but there are also many explicit visual and aural echoes of his surrealist beginnings (Un chien andalou and L’age d’or). Haunting, amusing, provocative, teasing, and elegant in its puzzlelike ambiguities, this is essential viewing. With Genevieve Page, Francisco Rabal, Georges Marchal, and Francoise Fabian (a couple of years before Eric Rohmer “discovered” her in Ma nuit chez Maud). Fine Arts.
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.
Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). This film is now available on a Blu-Ray from Warners, with an excellent audio commentary by Robert Wise, all four of the lead actors, and screenwriter Nelson Gidding. And for the record, a recent look confirms that it isn’t at all “stiff in the joints”; Jack Clayton’s The Innocents may be more accomplished, but this is still a rousing, intelligent, and provocative horror film.– J.R.
Robert Wise’s 1963 black-and-white ‘Scope translation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was pretty effective when it came out; it may be a little stiff in the joints by now, but it’s still a much better scare show than the stinker remake, and clearly aided by Wise’s skill as an editor. With Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Julie Harris. 112 min. (JR)