From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1975, Vol. 42, No. 500.
It’s good to see Norman Mailer’s first three features just out in a two-disc DVD set from Eclipse (it would be great if Criterion could eventually do the same for Susan Sontag’s three fiction features), even though I regret that my two favorite Mailer films — his untitled, ten-minute experimental short from 1947 (recently discovered by archivist Michael Chaiken, who wrote the excellent and provocative notes for the Eclipse set, and which I saw last July at Il Cinema Ritrovato) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) — aren’t included. (Admittedly, I haven’t yet seen all of Maidstone, which Chaiken makes the most claims for, so these rankings on my part are still subject to revision.)…In his Eclipse notes, Chaiken describes Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? [sic] as “a filmed counterpart to The Armies of the Night“, which parallels my own observation here.… Read more »
The notion of the “testament” — the final work of a major filmmaker — is an important one to film lovers. It can be traced back to the 60s, specifically to the French New Wave and the forging in this country of the concept of the film auteur, a time when these and related phenomena were altering the official canons of movie culture. Starting next Tuesday, May 17, the Film Center of the Art Institute will present a weekly series of testaments to run through the end of June.
A lot of the movies included in “Testaments: Final Films of the Great Directors” were getting their first releases back in those days. And almost invariably, they were dying at the box office and at the hands of most mainstream reviewers, while a team of passionate and informed enthusiasts were singing their praises. Bloody religious wars were waged over these movies; in most cases, they’re still being waged.
Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), for example, and John Ford’s Seven Women (1966) are movies that separate the sheep from the goats as far as aficionados of their directors are concerned.… Read more »
It’s remarkable how over the course of just three nightlife features — Metropolitan, Barcelona, and this comedy set in the early 1980s — writer-director Whit Stillman has created a form of mannerist dialogue as recognizable as David Mamet’s, a kind of self-conscious, upper-crust Manhattan gab reeking of hairsplitting cultural distinctions. Fortunately, this time around the Ivy League characters project less of a glib sense of entitlement, making them more fun to watch, and Stillman himself gives more evidence of watching rather than simply listening. The characters include two young women in publishing (Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale) who find a flat together, their roommate (Tara Subkoff), an employee at the club where they hang out (the always interesting Chris Eigeman), a fledgling ad executive (Mackenzie Astin), a junior assistant district attorney (Matt Keeslar), and a lawyer (Robert Sean Leonard). Stillman does interesting things with all of them. 113 min. (JR)
Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch for his third feature, Quentin Tarantino puts together a fairly intricate and relatively uninvolving money-smuggling plot, but his cast is so good that you probably won’t feel cheated unless you’re hoping for something as show-offy as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. A flight attendant (70s blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, agreeably treated here like a goddess) gets caught smuggling gun money for an arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson in his prime) and has to work out her loyalties to him, her bail bondsman (Robert Forster, agreeably treated like a noir axiom), the law (including Michael Keaton), and her own interests. Robert De Niro does a fine character part, and Bridget Fonda is very sexy. Biograph, Burnham Plaza, Chatham 14, Esquire, Ford City, Gardens, Hyde Park, Lake, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, 62nd & Western.
Unusually seedy and small-scale for a Fox picture of 1952, this black-and-white thriller is set over one evening exclusively inside a middle-class urban hotel and the adjoining bar. The bar’s singer (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut) breaks up with her sour pilot boyfriend (Richard Widmark), a hotel guest. He responds by flirting with a woman (Marilyn Monroe) in another room who’s babysitting a little girl (Donna Corcoran), but the babysitter turns out to be psychotic and potentially dangerous. Daniel Taradash’s script is contrived in spots, and the main virtue of Roy Ward Baker’s direction is its low-key plainness, yet Monroe — appearing here just before she became typecast as a gold-plated sex object — is frighteningly real as the confused babysitter, and the deglamorized setting is no less persuasive. With Jim Backus as the girl’s father and Elisha Cook Jr. as Monroe’s uncle, the hotel elevator operator. 76 min. (JR)
The third feature by writer-director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity), daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, doesn’t succeed in everything it sets out to do. But as a statement about the death rattle of 60s counterculture it’s thoughtful and affecting, and Daniel Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as a defiant yet ailing idealist who once helped found a commune on an eastern seaboard island and now lives on the isolated property with his sheltered 16-year-old daughter (Camilla Belle). This arrangement becomes more troubled after he invites a lover (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons (Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano) to move in, and all five people begin to come unglued. With Beau Bridges. R, 111 min. (JR)
Sam Fuller’s first and greatest war film (1951) is even better in its terse and minimalist power than the restored version of The Big Red One released last year. The first Hollywood movie about the Korean war, this introduced Gene Evans, the gruff star Fuller was to use many more times, as a crude, bitter, savvy sergeant who, despite his obvious racism, bonds with a South Korean war orphan. In addition to being visually and aurally brilliant, the film includes virtually unprecedented debates about America’s racial segregation and the internment of Japanese during World War II. An independent production, The Steel Helmet did so well that it immediately won Fuller a contract at 20th Century Fox. With Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton, and James Edwards. 84 min. (JR)
I headed the critics’ jury at Rotterdam in 2004 that gave its top prize to Yutaka Tsuchiya’s exceedingly weird fiction documentary video about teenyboppers drifting around Shibuya, Tokyo’s fashionable shopping district. (Another big fan of the film, incidentally, is Claire Denis.) Bewildering in the best sense, this kinky low-tech digital video is fascinating for its Martian-like characters — dressed like fairy-tale figures and preoccupied with obscure rituals — and its singular use of space, which combines the claustrophobia imposed by small cubicles, TV screens, and surveillance cameras with the vast exterior reaches of the urban landscape, confounding our usual grasp of inside and out, public and private. Imagine Blade Runner restaged inside someone’s closet. In Japanese with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)
It seems like hardly anyone in the U.S. ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, despite its enormous success elsewhere, apparently not so much because kids had trouble with it as because of the adult suits handling it. But Roger Ebert gave this film only two and a half stars while assigning Mr. and Mrs. Smith three stars the same week (June 10, 2005), suggesting that one of us was probably wrong — or maybe just that Japanese kids and I are both helplessly out of touch with the American mainstream as defined by some grown-ups. — J.R.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Directed and Written by Hayao Miyazaki
With the voices of Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, and Billy Crystal
The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3-D
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Rodriguez and Racer Rodriguez
With Cayden Boyd, Taylor Dooley, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Jacob Davich, David Arquette, and Kristin Davis
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
no stars (Worthless)
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Simon Kinberg
With Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Adam Brody, Kerry Washington, and Keith David
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sometimes movies earmarked for kids are a lot more nuanced, sophisticated, and mature than the ones that are allegedly for grown-ups.… Read more »
A disgusting account of what the evil Vietnamese did to poor, innocent Americans stands at the center of this Oscar-laden weepie about macho buddies from a small industrial town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and John Cazale, wasted in his last screen performance). It begins with an extended wedding sequence cribbed from Visconti and ends with a world-weary rendition of God Bless America. While the results are far from unprofessional — the cast is uniformly good, including a characteristically slapped-around Meryl Streep, and the two deer-hunting sequences mark director Michael Cimino as an able student of Disney’s Bambi and Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light — the male self-pity is so overwhelming that you’ll probably stagger out of this mumbling something about Tolstoy (as many critics did when the film first came out in 1978) if you aren’t as nauseated as I was. I much prefer Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. 183 min. (JR)
Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)
While I can’t vouch for how well this 1991 documentary interprets Stephen Hawking’s best-selling book, this is my favorite Errol Morris picture after Fast, Cheap & Out of Control — a cogent and fascinating presentation of Hawking’s theories about the origin and fate of the universe, intercut with an account of Hawking’s life (including how he has managed to cope with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). I find the material from the book much more important and fascinating than the inspirational life story; though interesting in its own right, it’s a standard triumph-over-adversity scenario that periodically threatens to trivialize Hawking’s ideas and work. However, the alternation between Morris’s usual talking-head approach for the biography and Hawking’s computer-generated voice and various kinds of illustrations to recount most of the theory creates a dialectic that the film profits from stylistically. Philip Glass composed the music. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1997). — J.R.
A turning point in the history of Taiwanese cinema, Edward Yang’s 1985 masterpiece suggests a rough parallel with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in relation to Iranian cinema by virtue of featuring the other key Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien, in a leading role, much as Mohsen Makhmalbaf is featured in Kiarostami’s film. Hou, who also collaborated on the script, plays an alienated businessman working for a textile manufacturer who was an ace baseball player in his youth; when his girlfriend (pop star Tsai Chin) loses her job at a computer firm, their relationship begins to crumble. But this couple’s malaise is only part of a multifaceted sense of confusion and despair that affects three generations of Taipei residents during a period of economic boom, and Yang’s mastery in weaving together all his characters and subplots against a glittering urban landscape anticipates the major themes of his subsequent works. Essential viewing. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1997). — J.R.
Writer-director Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath) tries his hand at outrageous screwball comedy, with very mixed results. Playing the lead part himself and shooting with a cast of unknowns in Louisiana, where he grew up, he proceeds largely by peppering his dialogue with various non sequiturs and stretches of nonsense (pacifist cottage . . . Belgian disregard . . . nose army . . . Vienna dog is one fair sample) and bad puns (I may vote Republican, says a dentist, but I’m a firm believer in gum control) and throwing in irreverent asides (No fish was harmed during the making of this film, reads an opening title, and one sign posted to a tree reads, Idea missing). Given the audacity, it would be a pleasure to report that the results are hilarious, but most of it isn’t even funny, and the sense of anything goes hangs heavy over the film as it develops. An authentic curiosity, but proceed at your own risk. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 22, 2003). — J.R.
Shot on a shoestring and none the worse for it, Jean-Luc Godard’s gritty and engaging first feature had an almost revolutionary impact when first released in 1960. It lays down most of the Godardian repertoire that the later films would build upon: male bravado spiced with plug-ugly mugging and amusing self-mockery (brought to perfection in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wonderful performance); a fascination with female beauty and treachery (the indelible Jean Seberg as the archetypal American abroad); an emulation of the American gangster movie, and a love-hatred for America in general; radically employed jump cuts that have the effect of a needle skipping gaily across a record; and a taste for literary, painterly, and musical quotations, as well as original aphorisms. Less characteristic of Godard’s later work are the superb jazz score (by French pianist Martial Solal), a relatively coherent and continuous narrative, and postsynchronized dialogue. In French with subtitles. 89 min. (JR)