Monthly Archives: October 2020

HEARTS OF THE WEST (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 509). — J.R.

Hollywood Cowboy

U.S.A., 1975
Director: Howard Zieff

Cert–A. dist–ClC. p.c–MGM. A Bill/Zieff production. p–Tony Bill. p. manager–Clark L. Paylow. asst. d–Jack B. Bernstein, Alan Brimfleld. sc–Rob Thompson. ph–Mario Tosi. col–Metrocolor. ed–Edward Warschilka. a.d–Robert Luthardt. set dec–Charles R. Pierce. m-Ken Lauber. m. sup–Harry V. Lojewski. special musical artists–Nick Lucas, Roger Patterson, Merle Travis. cost–Patrick Cummings. choreo--Sylvia Lewis. Titles/opticals–MGM. sd–Jerry Jost, Harry W. Tetrick. sd. effects–John P. Riordan. l.p–Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Blythe Danner (Miss Trout), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Donald Pleasence (A. I. Nietz), Alan Arkin (Kessler), Richard B. Shull (Stout Crook), Herbert Edelman (Polo), Alex Rocco (Earl), Frank Cady (Pa Tater), Anthony James (Lean Crook), Burton Gilliam (Lester), Matt Clark (Jackson), Candy Azzata (Waitress), Thayer David (Bank Manager), Marie Windsor (Woman at Nevada Hotel), Anthony Holland (Guest at Beach Party), Dub Taylor (Nevada Ticket Agent), Raymond Guth (Wally), Wayne Storm (Zyle), Herman Poppe (Lowell), William Christopher (Bank Teller), Jane Dulo (Mrs. Read more

Bottle Rocket

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.


A fresh, character-driven, often funny, and unfashionably upbeat (as well as offbeat) first feature by Wes Anderson, this film — written by one of the lead actors (Owen C. Wilson) in collaboration with Anderson — focuses on three young and immature male friends and aspiring thieves in Texas. Two of Wilson’s brothers, Luke and Andrew, also act in the film, the former playing another of the leads; the third friend is played by Robert Musgrave, and Like Water for Chocolate‘s Lumi Cavazos and Hollywood veteran James Caan also play significant roles. The film has all the benefits that come from a relaxed cast largely consisting of friends, and the presence of such producers/godparents as Polly Platt, James L. Brooks, and L.M. Kit Carson probably helps as well. This isn’t a movie that beats you over the head, which in industry terms may make it a hard sell, but I found its Kerouac-like goofiness both charming and sustaining. Pipers Alley, Evanston. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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

This was comic writer-director-performer Maurizio Nichetti’s first feature (1979), a string of episodic sketches, some of which blew me away when I first saw them. (Nichetti subsequently made Ho fatto splash, The Icicle Thief, and Volere volare.) This eccentric debut movie, still possibly Nichetti’s best, was so disliked by New York critics that it never opened here, though it played briefly on cable in the early 80s. The inventive sound track recalls Tati, and the poetically skewed view of the modern world has a quirky flavor all its own. The diminutive, cartoonish Nichetti plays a character named Colombo who alternately works as a waiter and tries to organize a theatrical group with friends; he also builds a precise replica of himself to go disco dancing in a club. The opening sequence is breathtaking, the rest a bit spotty; but the film is certainly worth a look. The title, incidentally, is a made-up word that’s supposed to sound like a drumroll. (JR)

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Pulp Fiction

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.


Quentin Tarantino’s second feature (1994), a chronologically scrambled collection of interlocking crime stories, extracts most of its kicks from other movies and TV shows. Despite all its thematic nudges about redemption and second chances its true agenda is the flip side of Forrest Gump: to make the media-savvy viewer the real hero of the story. A wet dream for 14-year-old male closet queens (or, perhaps more accurately, the 14-year-old male closet queen in each of us), this smart-alecky movie sparkles with canny twists and turns. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel vibrate with high-voltage star power, while Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Tim Roth, and Amanda Plummer amply fill out the remaining scenery. The overall project is evident: to evict real life and real people from the art film and replace them with generic teases and assorted hommages. Don’t expect any of the life experiences of the old movie sources to leak through; punchy, flamboyant surface is all. R, 154 min. (JR)

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The Pledge

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 2001). — J.R.


The third feature directed by Sean Penn and the first one that I’ve liked. Adapted by the couple Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from a 1958 Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel, this is a nervy as well as somber piece of work, not only for the way it confounds and even frustrates certain genre expectations, but also — and especially — for how it confronts the viewer with the moral implications of that frustration. Jack Nicholson, in one of his most impressive, least show-offy performances, plays a Reno police detective who becomes obsessed with the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl and by his pledge to her parents that he’ll catch the murderer — unlike his colleagues, he still considers the case unsolved. Though he makes a stab at retirement, moving into a fishing resort and taking over a filling station, he continues to track down what he believes are clues, but this movie qualifies as a mystery thriller only intermittently; it’s more concerned with how much he — and we — want the culprit, real or imagined, to spring out of hiding and continue his bloody work. An abandoned balloon at one juncture alludes directly to Fritz Lang’s M, and though Penn’s arty direction doesn’t belong in that league, he’s become a very accomplished storyteller and an adroit director of actors — including the omnipresent Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, and, in striking cameos, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, and Helen Mirren. Read more


From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2001). — J.R.


An appealing mess. Director Tim Burton joins forces with writers Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren, and Larry Wilson, and a cast headed by Michael Keaton as the eponymous lead — a scuzzy miniature bio-exorcist — to create a rather original horror comedy out of what appears to be a strong first-draft script and a minuscule budget (1988). Faces stretch like Silly Putty and a ghost couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) try to oust a yuppie couple (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara) from their New England mansion. The pasteboard special effects, which have a special charm of their own, make up in verve and imagination what they sometimes lack in polish, and Keaton has such a time with his extravagant turn as a demonic hipster bum that one can forgive the less inspired contributions of Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney, and Dick Cavett, among others. PG, 92 min. (JR)

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From the Chicago Reader (January 27, 2006). — J.R.


The first in a projected series of six low-budget HDV features to be released simultaneously in theaters, on cable, and on DVD, Steven Soderbergh’s quirky 2005 drama, written by Coleman Hough (Full Frontal), is to my taste the best thing he’s done in years. Cast with nonprofessionals and filmed near the border of West Virginia and Ohio, it concerns the elusive story of three characters employed at a local doll factory: a stocky middle-aged woman (Debbie Doebereiner) who lives with her invalid father, a timid guy (Dustin James Ashley) she considers her best friend, and a young single mother (Misty Dawn Wilkins) who’s brought on as a temporary airbrusher and immediately bonds with him. Starting off as a low-key psychological drama, this suddenly turns into a murder mystery that’s resolved awkwardly and ambiguously, but the fascination of the characters and milieu remains. R, 90 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.

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Give Up the Gimmick [MELINDA AND MELINDA]

From the March 25, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Melinda and Melinda

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, and Larry Pine

Brainteaser movies have been enjoying a certain vogue in the past few years. The taste for them can be traced back to at least 1994 and the jigsaw-puzzle narrative of Pulp Fiction. But the trend got started in earnest in 2000, with the release of Memento, which tells a complicated story backward, and it gained further momentum two years later when the same gimmick was combined with sex and violence in Irreversible. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kill Bill have more substantial characters than either of those films, yet part of their appeal lies in the challenge of putting scrambled narrative pieces together.

There are people who say they don’t like to read or write but spend plenty of time doing both on the Internet. Similarly, there are people who say they don’t like to think while watching movies yet don’t mind using their brains when it comes to “puzzle” movies. But there are different kinds of thinking. Read more

Documentary Expressionism: The Films of William Klein

From the English magazine Creative Camera (No. 1, 1990). This is mainly derived from a catalog that was  put together about Klein for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis the previous year, consisting of an essay and interview which will eventually be posted here separately. -– J.R.

One of the limitations of conventional film history, with its subdivisions of schools and movements, is that many interesting filmmakers who are unlucky enough to exist apart from neat categories tend to disappear between the cracks. The case of William Klein, whose film work has received negligible commentary (especially in English), can partially be explained by pointing to the things he is not — or at least not quite.

He is not quite “American” — although he was born in New York City in 1928, grew up near the intersection of 108th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and has devoted a substantial part of his film work to American subjects. He is not quite “French” — although he moved to Paris in 1948 to study painting with Fernand Léger and has been based there ever since. He began making films in the 1950s, around the same time the French New Wave was gaining prominence, and he might provisionally be regarded as a member of the so-called Left Bank group, which included Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda. Read more

Santa Sangre

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


This 1989 feature by Alejandro Jodorowsky is just as silly and pretentious as his previous El topo and The Holy Mountain, but it’s similarly watchable and fun in a campy, sub-Fellini sort of way — if only because of its dogged devotion to surrealist excess. (The Mel Brooks of vulgar surrealism, Jodorowsky’s basic principle is that if you throw 30 outrageous ideas at the audience, 2 or 3 are bound to make an impression.) It’s basically a sadomasochistic circus story about a crazed former magician (played at different ages by Jodorowsky’s sons Axel and Adan) whose father (Guy Stockwell) ran a circus and whose mother (Blanca Guerra) is a religious fanatic who worshiped an armless saint and lost her own arms. Many years after a traumatic (if, for Jodorowsky, characteristic) family incident that involves the mother’s mutilation and the father’s mutilation and suicide, the mother compels her son to become her lost hands, forcing him, among other things, to murder lots of women (Thelma Tixou, Zonia Rangel Mora, Gloriella). A deaf-mute the son loved as a child (Sabrina Dennison and Faviola Elenka Tapia) turns up later to redeem him. Scripted by Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento, and filmed in Mexico in English. Read more


From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 1989). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Guy Maddin

With Kyle McCulloch, Michael Gottli, Angela Heck, Margaret-Anne MacLeod, Heather Neale, and Caroline Bonner.

Given the murky black-and-white photography, the fascination with repulsive medical details, the loony deadpan humor, the impoverished characters and settings, and the dreamlike drift of bizarre and affectless incidents, it’s difficult not to compare Tales From the Gimli Hospital with David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It’s also being distributed mainly (although not yet in Chicago) as a midnight attraction by Ben Barenholtz, the same man who launched Eraserhead on the midnight circuits a dozen years ago. Turning up here at the Film Center in Barbara Scharres’s “Films From the Lunatic Fringe” series, Tales From the Gimli Hospital isn’t an easy film to categorize, but invoking the name and weirdness of David Lynch gives you at least a rough idea of what to expect.

In many respects, Guy Maddin’s oddball independent Canadian production is distinctly different from Eraserhead. The sensibility at work here is neither painterly nor musical — the frames aren’t rigorously composed, and the eclectic editing rhythms are relatively stodgy and clunky — but steeped, rather, in the traditions of oral narrative and cinema of the late 20s and early 30s. Read more