From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 505). It’s worth noting that (1) this stinker made a fortune, which suggests that many people must have liked it, and (2) cinemas were required to book it for extended runs regardless of whether or not people showed up or iiked it, making it the only movie showing for a lengthy time in many small towns that summer and thus making its profitability a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. — J.R.
With an outsized budget estimated variously at $12,600,000 (Variety) and £10,000,000 (Daily Mirror), three box-office favourites and a script deliberately written, according to co-author Gloria Katz, as “the most commercial thing we could think up”, Lucky Lady is both conspicuously overproduced and undernourished.
The presence of Stanley Donen seems to count for little in a project that might more logically have been entrusted to a computer. All it has to express, quite simply, are its deliberations: to combine as many saleable features as can be packed on a screen within the space of two hours. A little of everything is thus tossed into the mixture; and a great deal of nothing emerges out of the isolation and autonomy of the assorted elements. Read more
The Roof of the Whale aka On Top of the Whale
(Hek dak van de Valvis/Le Toit de la baleine, Netherlands/France, 1981)
The Roof of the Whale– the film of Ruiz’s with the most pronounced ideological/political/polemical thrust – deals brilliantly with the plight of an anthropologist trying to learn the language of an obscure Patagonian Indian tribe whose last surviving members he has discovered. Beautifully and inventively shot in colour by Henri Alekan, the film proceeds less as narrative or as drama than as a prodigious stream of visual, verbal and conceptual ideas centring around this theme. The performances are either minimal to the point of indifference or deliberately curtailed (so that, for instance, Willeke van Ammelrooy, who plays the anthropologist’s wife, appears to have learned her speeches in English phonetically) and, despite periodic bursts of portentous music, suspense exists only on a purely formal level.Two sample narrative ideas, neither of which lead anywhere in particular: in a weird parody of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the anthropologist’s child – a creature of indeterminate gender – becomes pregnant after gazing into a mirror; as an apparent gloss on this event, his or her mother remarks that poetry is dangerous because ‘metaphors become a religion, and religion is the opiate of the masses’.
One of the very best features of the neglected Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet, this 1935 feature is, like some of his other talkies, a glorious musical of sorts. Codirected by S. Mardanov, it’s about two buddies, a sailor and a mechanic, who, shipwrecked on an island in Soviet Azerbaijan, both try to woo the same young woman, who runs a fishing co-op. Though seemingly light, it’s as intensely physical as Barnet’s preceding masterpiece, Okraina, and its melancholic undertow makes it distinctly different from the early sound comedies of Raoul Walsh that it sometimes resembles. In Russian with subtitles. 71 min. (JR)
Chantal Akerman’s greatest film — made in 1975 and running 198 minutes — is one of those lucid puzzlers that may drive you up the wall but will keep you thinking for days or weeks. Delphine Seyrig, in one of her greatest performances, plays Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian woman obsessed with performing daily rounds of housework and other routines (including occasional prostitution) in the flat she occupies with her teenage son. The film follows three days in Dielman’s regulated life, and Akerman’s intense concentration on her daily activities — monumentalized by Babette Mangolte’s superb cinematography and mainly frontal camera setups — eventually sensitizes us to the small ways in which her system is breaking down. By placing so much emphasis on aspects of life and work that other films routinely omit, mystify, or skirt over, Akerman forges a major statement, not only in a feminist context but also in a way that tells us something about the lives we all live. In French with subtitles. (JR) Read more
Like Mystery Train and Night on Earth, this feature by Jim Jarmusch is a collection of short stories, but it’s funnier and more formally adventurous than either; it’s also ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. Shot in black and white over 17 years, its 11 episodes feature actors and/or musicians, usually playing themselves and hanging out together in cafes while consuming caffeine and nicotine. One recurring theme is the ethics and protocol of being a celebrity (explored most impressively by Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and by Cate Blanchett in a virtuoso double role as herself and her own cousin); another is the everyday tension that can develop between friends and relatives. Among the two dozen stars are Isaach de Bankole, Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes. R, 96 min. Music Box.
Snakes and Ladders
(Le Jeu de l’Oie: La Cartographie, short, France, 1980)
In the delightful Snakes and Ladders, ‘a didactic fiction about cartography’ made for French television to promote a map exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – a Borgesian metaphysical fantasy whose hero progressively discovers that France is a life-size board game (devoted to Snakes and Ladders or ‘The Goose’s Game’) – one has to deal with tatty special effects of Edward D. Wood Jr calibre, along with the brilliant conceits and two separate off-screen narrators, male and female. At the outset, the troubled hero (Pascal Bonitzer) – who is found to be vomiting out dice on one occasion, and shaken as dice by an enormous hand on another – discovers that ‘he is the victim of the worst kind of nightmare, the didactic nightmare.’ Some form of didacticism seems evident in every Ruiz project but, as with Borges, it is a didacticism that often parodies itself and becomes camp, yielding precisely the kind of nightmare that ensues when, through a delirium of literalism, thought becomes flesh and the universe becomes a brain dreaming of thoughts yet unborn.
From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2001). — J.R.
The Vertical Ray of the Sun ***
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Tran Nu Yen-khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Le Khanh, Ngo Quang Hai, Tran Manh Cuong, and Chu Ngoc Hung.
Last spring I was in Austin, Texas, on a film-festival panel about film festivals with the editor of a film magazine who’s also the author of a book on film festivals. “I don’t like foreign films or academic films,” he told me, a declaration that stumped me at first because it raised two vexing questions: (1) Why link “foreign films” and “academic films” as if the two had something intrinsic in common? (2) Had he seen at least one film from every foreign country in the world that produced movies and made his judgment on that basis?
After pondering other things he said, I came up with what I believe were the correct answers to both questions. (1) Foreign films and academic films were linked for him because both obliged him to think. (2) Of course not; what he meant by “foreign” was simply “not American.” Put these premises together and it’s clear he was saying he didn’t like movies that made him think, which is what non-American movies did — apparently even Bavarian porn, Italian splatter fests, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Read more
Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early features, La Signora Senza Camelie (1953) is a caustic Cinderella story about a Milanese shop clerk (Lucia Bose) who briefly becomes a glamorous movie star. One of the cruelest and most accurate portraits of studio filmmaking and the Italian movie world that we have, it’s informed by a visually and emotionally complex mise en scene that juggles background with foreground elements in a choreographic style recalling Welles at times. Though it’s only Antonioni’s third feature, and its episodic structure necessitates a somewhat awkward expositional method, this is mature filmmaking that leaves an indelible aftertaste. In Italian with subtitles. 105 min. (JR) Read more
SCIENCE: GOOD, BAD AND BOGUS by Martin Gardner. Prometheus, $18.95.
As an old fan of Fads and Fallcies in the name of Science, Martin Gardner’s classic ’50s “study in human gullibility,” I’ve been looking forward to a sequel for quite some time. This collection of 38 skeptical pieces about “pseudoscience” (from Uri Geller to UFOs, by way of ESP) and “eccentric fringes” (such as black holes, catastrophe theory, and talking apes) isn’t that sequel, but it’s the next best thing — an elegant paste-up of articles and book reviews Gardner has written over the past three decades.
Fads and Fallacies took up a veritable rogues’ gallery of cranks, bumblers, and hustlers through the ages — like Wilbur Gleen Voliva, who thought the earth was shaped like a pancake, or Colonel Dinshah Ghadiali, whose Spectro-Chrome Therapy prescribed colored lights and a proper diet for every ailment. Thanks to the warm amusement of the man who brought us The Annotated Alice, these characters were often imbued with a certain Gogolian density even as Gardner dispassionately tore their science to shreds. Faced with his less humorous contemporaries in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, Gardner has to forgo much of this novelistic bent — an aesthetic loss, in some ways, but also a practical gain. Read more
If reading Faulkner is sometimes like going on a desperate and delicious three-day bender, perusing the clear-headed work old Doc Percy — a practical-minded (if nonpracticing) Southern M.D., now in his mid-60s — is usually more like taking a healthy antidote the next morning, and recovering one’s senses with dry irony and mordant wit. At least it has seemed that way up until now, to a Southern expatriate like myself who cherishes both writers (and a fellow moviegoer who appreciates what these very different noble Southern novelists have learned to steal from movies).
But The Second Coming — Percy’s fifth novel, after The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins and Lancelot — happily makes hash of this conceit by offering both pleasures in succession, the night before and the morning after, without so much as a hangover. How does Percy do it? Partially, I think, by splitting himself in two, like any self-respecting Gemini, and then making music out of his intertwining, alternating voices that ultimately merge: an old-fashioned love story, and one with a happy ending. Read more
This is one of the best features (1996) of the prolific and unpredictable Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a dozen of whose films are showing at the Film Center this month. It’s also one of his most seminal and accessible — a reconstruction of a pivotal incident during his teens. At the time the shah was in power, and Makhmalbaf was a fundamentalist activist. He stabbed a policeman, was shot and arrested, and spent several years in prison. Two decades later, his politics quite different, Makhmalbaf was auditioning people to appear in his film Salaam Cinema, and among them was the policeman, now unemployed. The two of them wound up collaborating on this film, which tries to reconcile their separate versions of what happened with separate cameras. No doubt it was prompted in part by Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-up (1990), another eclectic documentary that reconstructs past events — a hoax that involved Makhmalbaf himself — with two cameras (showing at the Film Center on April 24). But this is no mere imitation; it’s a fascinating humanist experiment and investigation in its own right, full of warmth and humor as well as mystery. The original Persian title, incidentally, translates as “Bread and Flower.” Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 7, 1997). Note: The film is now available with English subtitles. — J.R.
The most powerful Iranian film I’ve seen is this 22-minute black-and-white 1962 documentary made by Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), commonly regarded as the greatest 20th-century Persian poet. It’s her only film and its subject is a leper colony in northern Iran. Part of what’s so special about it is its seamless adaptation of the techniques of poetry to the techniques of film, in which framing, editing, sound, and narration all play central roles. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact — without a trace of sentimentality or voyeurism, yet profoundly humanist — Farrokhzad’s view of everyday life in the colony (children at school and at play, people eating, various medical treatments) is spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. This extremely rare film has never been subtitled, but at a symposium on Farrokhzad’s life and work, Chicago filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa will follow a video screening of The House Is Black with a discussion in English. Preceding this will be the premiere of a video documentary in English that I haven’t seen, Mansooreh Saboori’s I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again, and a discussion with Saboori. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1997). — J.R.
Buster Keaton is a bachelor who stands to inherit a fortune if he finds himself a bride by seven o’clock in this 1925 silent feature, which Dave Kehr has described as “a cubist comedy…based on a principle of geometric progression” from the number seven. Adapted from a stage-bound play by David Belasco, it takes off into the stratosphere only at the climax, but that outlandish chase sequence alone is well worth the price of admission. On the same program: one of Keaton’s greatest shorts, Cops (1922), which he directed with Eddie Cline. Both films will be shown in 35-millimeter prints, and David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday and Saturday, September 21 and 22, 6:15, 312-846-2800.
A heartbreaking French melodrama (1990), adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon (Les fiancailles de M. Hire) about a shy and reclusive tailor (Michel Blanc) obsessively spying on a beautiful neighbor (Sandrine Bonnaire), who discovers and is touched by his voyeuristic interest. The plot also involves the mysterious death of a girl in the neighborhood. Paradoxically, director Patrice Leconte, who collaborated with Patrick Dewolf on the script, filmed this elegant, affecting, and highly claustrophobic chamber piece in ‘Scope; Michael Nyman contributed the haunting score. With Luc Thuillier and Andre Wims. 88 min. (JR)
This was reviewed at one point or another for the Chicago Reader. — J.R,
Monte Hellman’s remarkably hip avant-garde western (1967) was sold straight to television in the U.S.; while overseas it became a standard reference point for cinephiles, here, alas, it remains a cultist legend that’s never received the attention it deserves. A provocative and often witty head scratcher, it stars Jack Nicholson (who also produced) as a hired gun and Warren Oates, both at their near best, along with Will Hutchins and Millie Perkins. With its existentialist approach to treks through the wilderness, this is one of the key forerunners of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. (JR)